Europe’s highest point, Mount Elbrus (5642m), is located in the Russian Caucasus. A bit out of direction when you think of ‘Europe’. However, we will not discuss the geographical borders of Europe in this article. You’ll find answers to the many questions that an independent climb, without guide, of this 5000 meter peak calls for. We will discuss in detail:
- Accommodation and mountain huts
Furthermore, we can only hope that this article will help you not to become a Mule*, Zombie** or Snowcat-slut***, which you will find in large quantities on this mountain. A phenomenon that you will always encounter at the highest, furthest or deepest. But don’t let this stop you, make it your own expedition and enjoy!
Mount Elbrus is a sturdy stratovolcano, a gigantic cone. We choose the classic route to the top, via the southern flank which starts in the Baksan valley. This one is the easiest to reach and is equipped with the necessary mountain huts. The north side is technically similar and also has a hut, but is much less accessible.
The route via the south flank is quoted as F+ (Facile). This means that the route doesn’t require knowledge of difficult alpine techniques, but this is a proper glacier so you better know how to walk with spikes and how to rope up. Mount Elbrus is technically not a challenge at all. You could say that 95% of the way is hiking. However, the difficulty lies in the altitude, 5642m is no laughing matter. A successful summit attempt will depend on a good acclimatization. More about this in the next point.
With the Baksan valley as a starting point you have roughly 2 options to go up the mountain: via the ski lifts from Azau to Garabashi (3888m) or you hike from Terskol, in 3 days, via the Observatory (3090m) and the Ice Camp (3670m) over a stretch of the glacier to Garabashi. Keep in mind that option 2 has no accommodation and you will have to take a tent with you. Garabashi is the end station of the new ski lift ‘Elbrus 3’. 200m Behind this ski lift is the Garabashi hut consisting out of ten blue containers.
From Garabashi the route goes north up the glacier to the Diesel hut, in Russian called ‘Priiut 11’, at 4040m. The Diesel Hut is located at the beginning of 2 parallel rock bands, the Odinnadtsati. The route runs between these 2 bands of rock up to 4370m.
After the Odinnadtsati rocks, the path climbs uphill to the foot of the slope that leads to the Pastukhova rocks. The route still goes straight north. A steep slope brings you to the top of the Pastukhova rocks at 4680m. Continue to climb north until you reach a red old snow-covered snowcat called Ratrak at 4940m.
110 Altimeters higher, at 5050m, is a small snow platform formed by turning snowmobiles and snowcats. Yes, you read it right, up to 5050m tourists are dropped here by these motorized monsters. From here, the route bends in a northwesterly direction. The path here seems deceptively flat from below but keeps rising well up to 5240m. In good weather, you can see the route from Garabashi until this point.
After this the path becomes false flat and turns north again, to the saddle between the 2 peaks of Elbrus at 5350m.
After the saddle the path goes uphill for a while in a northwesterly direction. This is where the most ‘technical’ part starts. This consists of a 300m long travers on a 30° slope. There are fixed ropes to which you can click in. However, a good path has been carved out in the snow by the large passage on this route. The traverse takes you to 5500m.
This is followed by one more small climb, on a now wide path, to 5580m. The last part is a gently rising plateau, ending with a pile of snow, the summit, 5642m!
Acclimatization is the key to a successful summit attempt on Elbrus. With an altitude of 5642m, only 50% of the oxygen is present here compared to sea level. Along the way we see dozens of ‘zombies’ who barely know where their feet are. The mountain is a battlefield of people who have not acclimatized enough. In general, we have the feeling that most people here follow the schedule of their itinerary then to listen to their own bodies and the weather. Allow enough margin in your planning so that you can play with extra rest days and bad weather forecasts. Below you can find out how we have fared. This can serve as a guideline but is of course not the absolute law.
Day 1, 2 and 3 – Arrival and lots of rain
The first 3 days the weather is bad. We gather information and walk in the Baksan valley. We sleep at 2205m.
Day 4 – The Start
Acclimatize is the message, so we have to go up. The most obvious option is to walk to the Observatory above Terskol, at 3000m. There is a dirttrack leaving from Terskol up to 2750m, maybe even higher but we are here in May and from here the track is covered with snow. Because of the popularity and accessibility of this walk there is already a clear path through the snow. We quickly arrive at the Observatory. If you don’t feel the altitude here you can go even further towards the Ice camp at 3600m. We turned back at 3400m. Another acclimatization hike starting from the Baksan valley is the top of the Cheget (3461m). It is recommended to do two acclimatization hikes from the valley before continuing up the mountain. However, two weeks before our arrival in Terskol we were at 4000m, so we decided to do only one acclimatization hike from the valley.
Day 5 – Up, Up, Up
From Azau we take the ski lift (600 rubles in 2019) up to the intermediate station ‘Mir’ at 3450m. You can also go higher up to the end station ‘Garabashi’. But as part of the much needed acclimatization we walk from Mir to Garabashi (2,1 km, 411m ascent). There is a clear path between the ski slopes that is also used by snowmobiles. 200m behind the arrival of the Garabashi ski lift is the Garabashi hut (3888m) consisting of a sea of blue containers. This is where we slept.
Day 6 – From Zero to Hero
We wake up with a hangover feeling: headache, nausea, muggy… And this despite the complete absence of alcohol the night before. A moment of doubt strikes us, have we risen too fast? We drag ourselves to the cooking container, melt snow, take a deep breath and have breakfast. An hour later, we feel better, what a relief! Our goal for the day and our base camp for the coming days is right in sight: the famous Diesel hut. Peanuts, because it is situated barely 1km and 152m uphill. We are quickly there. To keep things serious we drop our heavy backpacks (with food for the next 7 days) in the hut and walk between the Odinnadtsati rocks up to 4350m. We sleep in the Diesel hut at 4040m.
Day 7 – Pushen
Today we set the bar high. On advice of a local guide we plan to go to 5000m instead of 4700m. It is hard, once we have passed 4700m a throbbing headache starts, alternating with gusts of nausea. We motivate ourselves with goals like 4808m, the height of the Mount Blanc. At 4930m, there is an old snowed-in red snowcat, here we take a longer break. We are still 70 meters altitude from our goal and our progress has dropped significantly in the last hour. What to do, push to our goal or not? We still have time and decide to make a last effort. We pass 5000m, another little victory. The snow platform at 5050m and also the final stop of the pistenbully’s, is in sight. We continue with the only motivation that this will make things better next time. After 5h we finally reach the platform, the last 350m cost us 2h. After a little rest and drinking our last water, 1000 vertical meters of ‘polished arsh sliding’ await. Mount Elbrus is perfectly suitable for just sliding down on your butt. 45 Minutes later we are back in the Diesel hut. The headache is still there. A nap and a few liters of water later everything is okay again.
Day 8 – Take Two
Initially, this was our well-deserved rest day. However, the weather decides differently. Today the weather is good, tomorrow it’s bad. So we decide to give the 5050m another go. Hoping for a better scenario than day 7. And indeed, 3 cheers for the human body. Less than 24 hours later we are back at 5050m, this time in 3h30. No nausea, just a very slight headache. Let’s take advantage of the situation to go even a bit higher and get used to a higher altitude. We continue up to 5180m, still 460m below the top. We will keep this for our summit attempt. As elegant as possible we slide back down to the Diesel hut.
Day 9 – Rest day
At last! Our well-deserved rest day: Sleep late, drink tea, eat, play games, small wash, read, eat, prepare material, …
Day 10 – Summit Push
The weather forecast forces us to leave early, at 2 a.m. we start our mission to the summit. To be honest, the 1st 1000 altimeters, which by now we know by heart, are difficult. The nocturnal departure and general tiredness after 4 days above 4000m, are probably playing us part. We progress slower then we would like but everyone knows ‘the slow one wins the race on this mountain’. We reach the saddle at 5350m, our acclimatization is doing its job so far. We are tired and a bit short of breath but don’t suffer from dizziness or heavy headaches. So we continue on the traverse that leads to 5550m. Once we pass it, the altitude hits, gusts of nausea cause a large drop in our pace. However, it’s not far now and with the summit in sight we continue steadily. We need to catch our breath and recover for a bit but after this we can fully enjoy the summit, the great view and our achievement!
- Day 5: We quickly climbed up to 3888m and didn’t feel so good the next day. An alternative is to stay in ‘The Barrels’/Bochki at 3700m.
- Day 8: Most people on Elbrus only go above 5000m once for acclimatization. We can only recommend to do this at least twice, even if it means doing the same hike. It will allow you to enjoy your summit attempt much more.
Each person will react a bit differently on a certain altitude. Prepare yourself for headaches, nausea, dizziness, disturbed gastrointestinal function,… And this over and over again as you go higher. The good news is, your previous elevation will start to feel more comfortable. However, always keep a close eye on the symptoms of acute altitude sickness.
Expect absolute chaos, especially in the mountain huts. As an independent climber without a guide, who does not speak Russian, there is no reservation system to unravel. On the mountain almost nobody speaks English either, only some guides (who will help you). We were here at the beginning of May and it is, not taking the Elbrus Race into account (1day), very quiet. In the summer months it is probably advisable to try to book the hut through an organization.
Camping Terskol (2200m – NB 43.25785, OL 42.50338)
Very simple campsite, just outside Terskol, which can serve as a base for the first acclimatization hikes from the valley. Facilities: running cold water, bush-style toilets (= hole in the ground), gas stoves, hot shower after 16h (100R), 1 electricity socket for the whole campsite. Per night: 100R/person + 100R/tent.
Garabashi hut (3888m – NB 43.30627, OL 42.46018)
About ten containers divided into ‘Standard’ (1000R/night) and ‘Comfort’ (2000R/night). Because of the hustle and bustle of the Elbrus Race, there was only room left in the ‘Comfort’ containers. A Comfort container consists of an entrance hall with boiler to melt snow, a dormitory with 6 separate beds and a living room with large window. There is lighting, heating and electricity in the Comfort container. Between the blue sleeping containers there are also grey cooking containers. There is a gas stove and some pots and bowls left behind to use (not much!). The two toilets, at the edge of the camp, are bush-style toilets. Sign up with the ‘Administrator’. No experience with the ‘Standard’ container.
Diesel Hut/Priiut 11 (4040m – NB 43.31391, OL 42.45926)
This simple mountain hut owes its name to the Diesel generator that used to run here. Now everything runs quietly on electricity. The refuge has room for about 60 people in bunk beds (900R/night). Bringing your own mat is recommended, the provided mattresses are very thin. There are several gas stoves and some communal pots and bowls (again not many). There is light and a little bit of electricity. The days we were here there was no heating, so it was quite cold inside. The 2 pit toilets are outside. Alexi, the administrator/huttenwird, keeps the cabin very clean.
Camping on Elbrus
You can also bring your own tent and camp on Elbrus. Both on the Odinnadtsati and on the Pastukhova rocks there are places where you can pitch your tent. Keep in mind extreme cold and strong gusts of wind.
Alpine equipment is essential as the route crosses a glacier. However, almost nobody ropes up. This is a consideration you have to make yourself.
What we took on our summit day:
- D-type walking shoes
- Ice pick
- Climbing harness
- Climbing rope (1 string of a double rope)
- Set for clicking in on the fixed ropes: Prusik rope 3m + 2 carabins
- Down jacket
- And of course: gaiters, good gloves, sunglasses/goggles, headlamp, …
All this equipment and much more (up to a thermos) can be rented at very reasonable prices in Terskol/Azau. We rented ourselves a thicker down coat at ‘Кошки Тут’ (Koschki Toet), the equipment rental at the campsite in Terskol (NB 43.25847, OL 42.50416).
Example of prices in May 2019 (70R=1€):
- Down Jacket Mountain Hardwear (900 filling): 300R/day
- D-shoes (depending on type): 300/400/800R/day
- Ice Pick: 100R/day
A map with a scale of 1:100 000 is available at the Info Center of the National Park in Elbrus (Lesnaya Ulitsa 2, Elbrus, NB 43.25132, OL 42.64157). However, this will be of little use due to the large scale.
We used Open Street Maps (OSM) on our GPS. The route is perfectly mapped. Here you find a detailed overview on how to install OSM-maps on your Garmin GPS device.
When it comes to permits, there is as much chaos and lack of clarity as reserving the mountain huts. An attempt at an overview:
- Walks over 3700m in the National Park: Permit required. Available at the Info Center of the National Park in Elbrus (Lesnaya Ulitsa 2, Elbrus, NB 43.25132, OL 42.64157). However, we were here on a public holiday, the center was closed. We didn’t double check anywhere else but nobody asked for it on the mountain itself. This would cost 300R, unclear whether this is per day or not.
- Walking under 3700m in the National Park: Day permit required if you come across a ticket booth. An employee of the National Park sells tickets at the beginning of the walk to the Observatory above Terskol. The price is 50R per day. It is not clear if this is also at other starting points.
- Registration at the Mountain Rescue: Unclear. You register for the period that you think you are on Mount Elbrus. When you return, you sign out. If you don’t come back they should call you/search for you. This is free of charge and you will be given a paper with their phone number in case of an emergency. It is not clear if this is mandatory but certainly not bad for your own safety. The office is located in Terskol (Zariechnaia Ulitsa 2, NB 43.25750, OL 42.51028).
A visa for Russia requires a little more effort than an average visa. In itself the process is clear but you have to collect/purchase the necessary documents. The entire Caucasus is also seen as a ‘sensitive’ region. Travel advice about this can be found on the website of Foreign Affairs. Because of this, the visa procedure can take longer and an urgent procedure is not always possible. So start on time.
Apply for a tourist visa:
- VFS Global: through this organization you can apply for a tourist visa for Russia. On their site you will also find an overview of the necessary steps, documents and costs.
- Letter of Invitation (LOI): You need a paper from a Russian travel agency or resident who ‘invites’ you to Russia. If you travel independently, you do not have these contacts and this is also purely administrative. So there is also a whole trade in LOIs. We applied for ours via visa4u.ru, we had them the same day (1000R).
- Visa for more than 14 days: You have to be able to present a travel program in Russian. Due to the lack of a travel agency we contacted Visa4u.ru back, they translated our travel program and added the necessary stamps (again 1000R).
Tourist visa registration:
As a tourist you are obliged to register your visa once you are in Russia. Hotels and hostels are familiar with the procedure and will do this for free and quickly. At the campsite in Terskol we could register for a fee (450R/person). You can also register yourself with your passport in a post office but then you also have to be able to present a Russian passport (of a person who wants to vouch for you). It is advisable to register a few times during your stay so that, if the police ask for it, you can present where you have been.
- We, Collecting Stones, ride from mountain range to mountain range this year. More info on collectingstones.be !
- A trip from Garabashi to 5050m with the snowcat costs around 10 000 rubles ( =140€). Up to 4700m it will cost you ‘only’ 5 000 rubles.
- ‘Администратор’ (Administrator) is the Russian ‘Huttenwird’. You want to catch this one if you want to stay in the mountain hut.
- ‘Прокат’ (Prokat) means ‘Rent’.
- May 2019: 1€ = 70 ruble
- The eastern peak of Elbrus is 20m lower, so hardly anyone does this. If you want peace and quiet, this is the better option ?.
*Mule – Heavily packed bent over tourist, usually leaning on his walking sticks, carrying a multiday backpack for the first time. Leave all those spare clothes at home and lets be smelly together in the mountain hut!
**Zombie – Under acclimatized person who has lost all sense of time and space. Common around 4500m, dressed in a far too warm down coat for this altitude, with an ice pick still in one hand, stumbling over his own crampons. One word: Acclimatize!
***Snowcat-slut – Pay a lot of money (cfr. Fun Facts) to be dropped off at 4700m or 5050m by a snowmobile or snowcat. We have a definite opinion about this: it spoils the atmosphere of the mountains and the alpinism this mountain is worthy of.