Mount Elbrus – 18,510 ft
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
July 23, 2016
Day 1: Fly Ulaanbaatar to Mineralnye Vody, taxi to Terskol
Day 2: Chairlift to Barrel Huts, sleep at 12,500ft
Day 3: Hike to 15,000ft, descend to 14,000ft camp
Day 4: Summit, return to Terskol
With the ascent of Mt Elbrus, I finished climbing the highest mountain in every European country, a challenging six-year project. It appears that approximately a dozen people have finished so far. Matthew is nearly finished, except for a few eastern European countries. We started climbing European country highpoints in the summer of 2010 as part of a multi-month bike tour through Iceland, Scandinavia, and western Europe. I returned for a few research conferences, hitting highpoints on the sidelines, and a few week-long mountaineering road trips. Finally, in the fall of 2014 I embarked on a 2-month-long bicycle tour through eastern Europe to climb all the remaining highpoints except the Russian highpoint – Mt Elbrus.
A trip to Mt Elbrus was on the verge of fruition in the spring of 2015, when Matthew and I were teaching in Moscow, Russia, but at the last minute the class schedule got changed and we had to scrap our mountaineering plans. Finally, in the summer of 2016 the pieces were in place for me to put the capstone on my European country highpoints project.
Matthew and I planned to climb a handful of high-altitude mountains over the summer, with the end goal being an ascent of the highly technical Shkhara, the Georgia highpoint (17,051ft). We would acclimate by first climbing Tavan Bogd (14,350ft) in Mongolia, then Mt Elbrus (18,510ft) in Russia shortly after. This way by the time we got to Shkhara we could hopefully climb quickly and not worry about acclimating. Tavan Bogd and Mt Elbrus were straightforward non-technical mountains that we could take our time on and acclimate well.
We spent two weeks in July in Mongolia, successfully ascending Tavan Bogd, then flew to Russia for our next objective, Mt Elbrus.
The first step in climbing Mt Elbrus is navigating all the required paperwork, which can take several months. Because Elbrus is close to the Georgia-Russia border, tourists need special documents (OVIR) granting them permission to visit the area. Tourists also need a visa, which first requires obtaining a letter of invitation from somebody in Russia. It is in theory possible to obtain all the necessary paperwork on your own, but is quite difficult if you don’t have contacts in Russia to help out. Matthew and I discovered that most independent climbers use the services of Pilgrim Tours, a company based in Russia that facilitates climbs of Elbrus.
Pilgrim Tours offers guided ascents, or just logistical help for required documentation. It appears that they are only slightly more expensive than figuring out and acquiring all the paperwork on your own, but are definitely worth it to not have to deal with Russian bureaucracy.
Matthew and I signed up for the most basic Pilgrim Tours package, which included providing a letter of invitation, obtaining the OVIR paperwork, providing transportation from the Mineralnye Vody airport to Terskol, and providing a hotel to stay at in Terskol (the trailhead town).
With the invitation letter ready, we filled out our tourist visa forms, which I dropped off with our passports at the Russian consulate in Seattle. Luckily the consulate was actually along my bike commute route to work every day, and since I could go there in person we saved a lot of money over using an online visa service to mail our passports and paperwork to a consulate.
By July we had all the necessary visas and documentation, and landed in Mineralnye Vody ready to start climbing. Outside baggage claim we met a man holding a Pilgrim Tours sign, and loaded all our luggage into his car. He didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Russian, but it was pretty clear we were the only ones with mountaineering gear coming off the plane, so likely had the correct ride.
The drive to Terskol took almost three hours, and Matthew and I were jet lagged enough from our flight from Mongolia (6-hour time difference) that we slept most of the way. I remember passing three or four police checkpoints, but we were always waved through. I guess the police recognized our driver.
By 11pm we pulled into a gravel parking lot outside a hotel, and lugged our bags inside. There was a group of people outside drinking, apparently celebrating a successful climb. We hoped that might be us soon. After checking in we dragged our gear into a room and quickly went to sleep for the night.
In the morning we had breakfast in the basement of the hotel, and were joined by a few other mountaineers. Two guys from Sweden were also planning to climb Elbrus, and looked to have a similar schedule as ours. Tatyana, the woman in charge of Pilgrim Tours in Terskol, told all four of us to meet her in the reception area after breakfast so she could tell us about the logistics of the mountain.
Tatyana has been helping people climb Elbrus for years and knows everything you would need to know about the mountain. She showed us a big map of the routes, printouts of the latest weather forecast, and gave us details about where to buy food in town, where to find banks, and how to take a chairlift to the barrel huts. She had a poster detailing a standard 5-day itinerary and 8-day itinerary. Since we had already acclimated in Mongolia a few days earlier, we planned do a bit faster schedule, perhaps 3 days. This coincided with a predicted weather window three days out.
Tatyana said the weather had been pretty bad for the past few weeks and only a few teams had summited. There were quite a few up on the mountain waiting for a weather window, so if it cleared up one day it would likely be quite crowded.
Matthew and I were planning to hike up all the way starting from Terskol to save some money, but the forecast for the day was rain below 12,000ft, and snow above 12,000ft. There is a ski resort at the base of Elbrus with chairlifts running year round, and the lifts go all the way up to around 12,500ft.
Almost every mountaineer on Elbrus takes the chairlift up, so we didn’t feel too bad doing the same to avoid getting all our gear soaked in the rain on the very first day. Tatyana also said that Pilgrim Tours owns a few huts just above the chairlift and they cost $10/person to spend the night. This was starting to seem more and more like cheating, but Matthew and I decided to stay in the huts just in case the rain level was higher than forecast, so at least we would be dry the first night.
After meeting with Tatyana we scheduled a taxi ride from the hotel to the chairlifts (a few miles up in the next village, Azule), then walked into town to withdraw some money and buy some food. We had a bit of food left over from Mongolia, but needed to supplement it in Terskol.
Unfortunately there’s not a great selection of food in Terskol. I think most climbers bring all of their own food, and the two small corner stores in the village just cater to the locals. We managed to buy some pasta, chips, cookies, and coco-puff cereal that would last us for up to 5 days on the mountain.
We repackaged the food back at the hotel, then packed up our bags and left all our excess gear (packrafts from our Mongolia trip and technical gear for Shkhara) in a storage room. The taxi came at 1pm, and
quickly drove us up to the base of the chair lifts. There are two chairlifts leading up the mountain, an older cheaper one, and a new gondola that’s only a year or two old. Tatyana said sometimes the old one doesn’t work, so it’s a better bet to go with the new one.
We bought two round trip tickets, then hopped inside and started going up the mountain. Rain splattered on the gondola window as we slowly climbed higher and higher. Eventually we had to get out and transfer to a second gondola, and later to a third gondola. As we got higher we could see big glaciers extending to the west, and high peaks shrouded in clouds. There was a wooden fence on the boundary of the ski area, and Russian military men with big guns were patrolling along the fence.
At the last stop we got out and encountered deep, slushy snow on the ground. It was mid-July, but above 12,000ft on Mt Elbrus you can probably ski all year. Snowmobiles were parked all around the gondola exit, and people were walking around near a small café. A chairlift brought skiers another few hundred feet up the mountain, where there was plenty of skiable terrain.
We walked around and soon found the Pilgrim Tours huts, each of which looked like the cargo box of a semi-truck, but with skids on the bottom so it could be dragged over snow. There were six huts lined up in a row, with five of them full of bunks for sleeping and one meant for cooking and eating. We found somebody in charge at the kitchen hut, told them Tatyana had given us permission to sleep there, and got a key to one of the huts.
After dropping off our gear we decided to do a brief acclimation walk up the mountain to around 13,000ft. The visibility was so bad, though, that we couldn’t really tell where we were going except that we were ascending. After about 30 minutes we called it good and turned around back to the hut.
The rest of the day we hung around in the hut acclimating as the weather deteriorated outside. Wind and wet snow blasted the hut all afternoon, and visibility was pretty low. The $10 fee to sleep in the huts now seemed totally worth it.
By dinner time we set up our stove outside and started melting some snow. An experienced-looking man in a huge parka was standing outside the kitchen hut, and introduced himself as Jim, an RMI guide leading a guided group up Elbrus. His group was also staying in the Pilgrim Tours huts and was eating dinner then.
Jim was very friendly, and told us he came to Elbrus at least once a summer to lead a trip. His strategy, which had the highest chance of success, was to have the clients acclimate on Cheget Peak nearby, then stay for a few days at 12,500 ft at the huts, do an acclimation hike to 15,000ft and then back to the huts, take one rest day, then summit the next day. On summit day, the clients would all ride in a snowcat from 12,500 up to around 16,000ft, and then just have to hike up the remaining 2,500ft.
I can definitely understand why a guide would take clients up in the snowcat, given how much it increases their chances of success, but Matthew and I could definitely not see ourselves doing that. It would be a pretty expensive way to cover terrain that we could easily walk up in a few hours, and we already felt bad for taking the chairlift up something we could have hiked up. Jim mentioned that he’d heard that one group of adventurers actually modified a Landrover and drove all the way to the summit
of Elbrus! If a vehicle could drive up, we thought, it can’t be terribly steep or technical for a person to walk up.
As we were finishing dinner the clouds briefly broke and we finally got a short view of the summit. It was actually a double summit, with the shorter East Peak in the foreground to our right, and the higher West Peak in the background to the left. They didn’t look terribly steep, and I could almost have imagined a daring snowmobiler getting to the summit.
The clouds soon rolled back in, and we hustled back inside the hut and were soon asleep.
The next morning we were still stuck in the clouds, with only occasional clearings giving views of the
summit. Matthew and I didn’t want to pay to sleep another night in the hut, so our plan was to hike up to around 14,000ft, set up a high camp, then do an acclimation hike to 15,000ft and sleep back at camp. If the weather forecast held, the next day would be our summit day.
We slowly marched up the slushy snow in the foggy conditions. The upper reaches of the ski area were actually quite crowded. Backcountry skiers were skinning up, snowmobilers were driving around, and other hikers were trudging up the mountain. As the clouds cleared momentarily we noticed there were actually quite a few other huts higher up on the mountain. We had heard of the Diesel Hut up around 13,600ft, but there were actually a few others too.
We switchbacked up the snowslope until we were higher than the last building, and at around 14,000ft started scouting out a good place to camp. It would have been easier to keep going higher, but for acclimation purposes we decided it would be unwise to sleep higher than 14,000ft.
The standard route, which we were following, goes directly up the south ridge on gentle snow slopes, with rock outcrops to the right. We started looking around these rock outcrops, and eventually found a small spot next to a huge boulder and somewhat sheltered by the wind. I set to work building up a snow wall on the windward side, as Matthew leveled out a tent platform and set up the tent. We had brought our small two-man Nemo winter mountaineering tent, which easily fit in the small area.
Once we had camp established, we threw our extra gear inside the tent and set off for a short acclimation hike. We were trying to roughly follow the standard 5-day Elbrus itinerary, but compressing it slightly. Most groups do an acclimation hike to the Pashtuhova Rocks (15,300ft) two days before summiting, and we decided to aim for these rocks as well.
With a small amount of emergency gear we went back to the main route, easily distinguished by the snowcat tracks, and continued hiking up. The visibility was about 30ft now, and we were careful not to stray from the snowcat and other hiker tracks. Eventually we checked the GPS and reached a point at 15,000ft. It wasn’t exactly at the Pashtuhova Rocks, but seemed good enough for acclimation, and there was no view anyways.
After a short break to get a drink of water we turned around and hiked back to camp. That evening we cooked up another meal of pasta, and went to bed early in preparation for an alpine start. We agreed to get up at 4am and if the weather was good as predicted, try for the summit.
I was woken up in the middle of the night by the low sound of an engine. I looked over and Matthew was awake too.
“Sounds like the first snowcat load of climbers is on its way up the mountain,” Matthew said.
I looked at my watch, and it was only 2:30am.
“It’s way too early. Let’s stick to the plan and get a bit more sleep,” I replied.
We tried to go back to sleep, but at 3am we heard more snowcats rumbling by.
“Maybe everyone else knows something we don’t,” Matthew said. “I’m already wide awake. Why don’t we just get started early?”
I agreed, so we quickly suited up, packed some food, water, and emergency gear in our packs, dropped some big rocks in the tent so it wouldn’t blow away, and started up the mountain. Amazingly the sky was completely clear, and we could clearly see the summit. It looked like a line of hundreds of little lights zigzagging up the mountain, and we slowly realized that each of those lights was actually a person’s headlamp! The past few weeks of bad weather must have created a serious backlog of climbers waiting to summit, and now all of them were climbing at the same time, in the first good weather window. There were literally at least 500 climbers on the mountain that day.
As we marched up the trail in the dark we passed slower climbers, and occasionally got passed ourselves by snowcats full of cold people hunkered on seats on the back. A few snowmobiles whizzed by, also ferrying climbers as high as they could go.
We climbed higher and higher, passing the Pashtuhova rocks as the first alpenglow was appearing on the horizon to the east. I was surprised how cold it was in the morning, even in late July. The summit forecast was for a low of 9F, and I don’t think it was much warmer than that where we were. The wind was ferocious, blowing particles of snow at my face that stung with pain. The whole morning my fingers kept getting numb, and I had to alternate between sticking one hand under my armpit or the other.
Matthew and I have definitely hiked in much colder conditions (it was around -15F on the summits of Mt Logan and Denali), but I think given that this was mid-July, and our bodies were used to the warmth of summer, this temperature was much harder to deal with this time.
Around 16,000 ft we came across an ancient abandoned snowcat that must have broken down years ago, and we took a break behind it out of the wind. Some of the snowcats were dropping off climbers here, and the route started to get pretty crowded.
After a quick snack we continued higher, up to a small ledge carved out of the snow at 16,500ft. This was the highest point any snowcat made it, and from here the route started traversing left over steep terrain that would probably tip over any snowcat or snowmobile.
Unfortunately the wind was coming from exactly the direction we were heading, and we had to hike with our heads pointed down to the ground to protect our faces. I regretted not bringing my goggles, but luckily had my balaclava pulled up. Still, I was a bit nervous about the exposed skin between my glacier glasses and balaclava.
We trudged through the snow, following occasional wands and the obvious tracks of the climbers in front of us. It was almost steep enough to warrant taking out the ice axes, but we felt confident enough here with hiking poles to proceed. The route actually goes high enough around the base of the East Peak of Elbrus that it avoids all major crevasses, and there isn’t really any need to rope up. We had brought a small glacier rope, but never needed to pull it out of our packs.
Eventually we reached the col between the East and West peaks at 17,000ft, and stopped to take a break.
It was still extremely cold and windy here, and Matthew was getting hammered by the altitude. For some reason I felt perfectly normal, but I guess altitude affects people differently. There was some talk about turning around, but we decided if I took all the gear and Matthew took nothing, and we didn’t stay on the top too long, then we could proceed.
Matthew left his pack at the col, put a few items in my pack, and we continued up. The terrain from the col up to the West Peak is the steepest on the mountain, and we actually thought it prudent hear to break out the ice axes. We marched diagonally up the snow sloped, following all the climbers ahead of us. Many of them were going extremely slowly, obviously suffering from the altitude, and we passed quite a few people.
The slopes gradually became less steep, and we emerged on a broad, flat plateau. In the distance we could see a small snowy point sticking out, with a handful of people standing on top. The summit was near!
Matthew was feeling better now that we were close, and we soon walked up the final short slope to the summit. The top was large enough to accommodate quite a few people, and someone had even brought a dog up there! It was a huge Siberian husky, and it was curled up in a big poof ball right on the summit.
The highest point was a big rock sticking out of the snow, and we posed for pictures here. Gradually the other climbers left, and we briefly had the summit to ourselves. The view was pretty amazing. To the north the flat farmland of southern Russia extended into the distance, while in all other directions we were surrounded by big snowy mountains. To the southeast I noticed one particularly large and steep mountain that I recognized from pictures as Shkhara, the Georgia highpoint. That was to be our next objective of the summer, and it looked a lot tougher than Elbrus.
Matthew didn’t want to stay too long at the summit, given how the altitude was affecting him, so we soon started heading back down. I made a quick stop to pick up a summit rock, and then we easily walked back down to the col. After picking up Matthew’s pack we traversed back around the East Peak, and regained the snowcat tracks.
It should have been an easy stroll back to our tent from that point, but there was still more excitement to be had in the day. Shortly below the snowcat turnaround point we noticed a snowmobiler zipping up the mountain, ferrying a climber to the dropoff point. I remember noticing that the terrain was really steep, and being impressed how the snowmobiler could make it up so high.
Shortly later, we heard the snowmobile coming back down, and walked to the side to get out of the way. When I looked up, though, the snowmobile was still pointed up the mountain and sliding down backwards. The climber had been dropped off higher up, but the driver was looking behind him, frantically trying to regain control of the machine. The teeth were digging into and throwing up snow, but it wasn’t sufficient to slow it down at all. The snowmobile flew by us, and just below started swerving side to side, then suddenly turned 90 degrees toward the mountain and started to flip over. The driver was thrown down the mountain, landing in the snow, while the snowmobile flipped and bounced right over top of him.
The snowmobile continued flipping and bouncing down the mountain, and two other climbers barely jumped out of the way in time. Eventually it came to a halt upside down. Miraculously the driver was unharmed, and he ran down after the snowmobile. From what I saw, I thought he had been killed, but the snowmobile must have just narrowly flown over him.
Matthew found the engine key lying in the snow amid other debris, and brought it down to the driver. He
had managed to right the machine, and embarrassingly accepted the key from Matthew after apologizing. He sat down, inspecting the snowmobile as we continued hiking down the mountain.
Eventually we encountered another snowmobile climbing up the mountain, and we told the driver what had happened and advised that the man higher up the mountain might need help. The man said he would take a look, and sped off up the mountain.
We quickly jogged back down to camp, eager to be away from the circus of snowcats, climbers, skiers, and snowmobilers all over the mountain. We reached camp by 11:30am, and after a short break decided to continue all the way back down to Terskol. The last gondola descended at 2:30pm, and we had plenty of time to catch it.
We broke down the tent, packed up, and quickly hiked back down to the gondola. At the huts we stopped briefly to chat with Jim, and he was optimistic the weather would hold for his clients to summit the next morning (they had taken a rest day that day).
We soon got on the gondola, and made it back to Terskol for a restful night in the hotel. We now had a little over a week left still in Russia, and began preparing for our next mountain, Shkhara, the Georgia highpoint.