On top of Europe — hiking Mt Elbrus

Our two-week family trip to Russia had three parts — touristy visits to Moscow and St. Petersburg, and time with relatives in Essentuki. The latter locale is only 3 hours from Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe, so I convinced my family to split that third part of the trip into two and spend a few days in the Caucasus mountains so I could have a go at Elbrus.

Turned out this was a great decision all around — the mountains are spectacular, very similar to the Alps, but with more glaciers; the village of Terskol where we stayed is tiny but has a few nice restaurants; and our hotel was way nicer than we expected (https://www.expedia.com/Terskol-Hotels-Hotel-Elbrusia.h15633088.Hotel-Information). In retrospect, this part of the trip would’ve been amazing even if I didn’t attempt Elbrus at all — lots of amazing scenery and running trails all around.

Views from our hotel room balcony

Planning for this hike was somewhat hard, as information online is scarce, ever-changing, and online reservations are mostly non-existent.

For gear, I made a last-minute decision to not bring anything (except my favorite Smartwool mountaineering socks), and rent it all in town. Once we arrived in town, I succeeded in getting all the rentals on second try. First store, “7 summits” (http://7summits-club.com/) looked clean, shiny and professional, but made me wait in line for half an hour before telling me they won’t give me anything because they have large groups coming in. Second place, Cultur-Multur (http://www.cultur-multur.com/) was busy, smelly, but generally friendly, and I got everything (boots, crampons, axe, pants, jacket, sleeping bag, etc, etc) for about $65 for 2 days. A steal, especially considering that airline bag fees alone would’ve been $180 for me to schlep my own gear here, not to mention the hassle of it. I did feel pretty dumb coming in there and basically saying “I’m here to climb this 18k ft peak, but all I got are sandals, shorts and a t-shirt, can you help me?” Overall, good quality gear, all the usual brands — Scarpa, Grivel, etc. The double-plastic Scarpa boots did destroy my shins, ripping off a few square inches of skin, which later got infected, making my leg swell up to twice its normal size and causing me to miss a few weeks of running and take way more antibiotics than I would’ve liked, but that’s another story.

Elbrus has two summits, East and West, almost identical in height, with West a little higher and therefore the primary destination. There are many routes up, the easiest being from the South, which typically involves taking ski lifts up from 8k ft to 12.5k ft, spending a night (or ideally a few to acclimatize) at one of many refuges there, and then hiking the rest of the way to 18.5k ft. I used SummitPost as the main source of information (http://www.summitpost.org/mount-elbrus/150255), supplementing it with a few Russian blog posts that are more up-to-date and detailed.

Riding up the gondola to basecamp

Given the short timeline, I decided to forego proper acclimatization and just go for the summit on the first day. I was hoping that I would have some acclimatization benefits left over from the JMT hike three weeks earlier (turns out this wasn’t the case), and figured I had enough fitness and capacity for suffering to power through headaches and altitude sickness since the hike is relatively short. I was also fully prepared to turn around at any sign of HAPE or HACE. I trust myself to not be too proud, and have never had “summit fever”.

So, the plan was drive to Terskol (~7k ft) on Sunday, do some light hiking (https://www.strava.com/activities/652096164), take the ski lifts up to 12.5k ft on Monday and do another hike in the afternoon (https://www.strava.com/activities/653886504), spend a night at one of the refuges, then alpine start Tuesday to summit and descend all the way back down. I felt this was aggressive, but doable.

First day family walk: View back on the hotel; adjusting baby pack; break to pick wild strawberries.
View of the twin summits from the 2nd gondola station. Note the old chairlift still running parallel to the new gondolas.

I found that while most refuges on Elbrus are old-school with just giant plank-beds that 5–10 people share, there was a new one, LeapRus (http://www.caucasus.ru/en/placement/item/1 ) that was “European-style” and included food, and most importantly had a website and took reservations. So I booked a spot there a couple months in advance, which was a bit of a hassle since they required passport copies and a bunch of signed papers, but at least I had a guaranteed place to sleep. Or so I thought. Two days before arriving, they sent me an email saying they no longer have space for me. Crap. Their hotel may be “Euro-style”, but the service is apparently still Soviet. Once I actually got to the base camp area, finding alternate accommodations turned out to be a non-issue — as part of my shake-out hike, I went to a few of them, and asked if they had space. First two places did not, but 3rd and 4th both did. You do have to be mentally ready for the experience though — no reservations, refuge hosts at 3 out of 4 places were drunk, prices are negotiable, and bathrooms are outhouse or non-existent. I ended up at a place right by the top of the ski lift, which didn’t appear to have a name, but people alternately referred to it as “National Park”, or “walk up to blue cabins and ask for Aslan”. Unlike shared beds at most others, in this one each room had two bunk beds (4 total), and since it was only half-full, I had a lower bunk and only one roommate.

Mom at the top of Gondolas. Blue cabins on the left is where I spent the night. Twin summits in background. PC: Alexander Shemyakin
Typical bathroom facilities at Elbrus base camp. PC: Alexander Shemyakin

Getting ready for the summit attempt, I asked everyone I could about conditions, since I knew weather is the main factor on this mountain. The forecast called for a clear night and day, but with strong winds. Not strong enough to prevent hiking, but strong enough to make for a very cold day. After some deliberating, I decided to start a little later in hopes that it would be warmer, and figuring I could always descend fast and make it down in time for the last ski lift down (4pm). Set my alarm for 2am, planning to start at 2:30am.

The route to the summit is about 4 miles and 6k ft of vert, but for a small, negotiable fee one can get a ride in a cat or a snowmobile most of the way up (first 3 miles, up to almost 17k ft). From what I read online (and agreed with), this isn’t proper mountaineering behavior and is generally lame and frowned upon. While I was sucking wind on the shakeout hike on Monday, I did briefly consider dropping the $20 for a cat ride, but ultimately decided to not be a wimp and hike properly.

The consensus online seemed to be 6–9hrs up and 3–6hrs down, so I arrogantly planned on 5hrs up and 3hrs down. Boy, was that dumb. Started the hike at 2:30am as planned, and was out of the clouds within a few minutes. I turned off the headlamp, and continued under the moonlight.

First rays of light at 4am

Luckily, I was above the clouds the rest of the trip. The hike to 17k ft was uneventful and slow. It was also demoralizing, as snow cats with dozens of people in the back kept going past me one after another, covering in 20 minutes what took me almost five hours. Apparently about 90% of the people on the mountain opted to cheat and get a ride up; I’d estimate there were maybe 30 people that hiked all the way up, and 300–400 who got a ride. Booooo.

Amazing views all day, but this one’s the best — Elbrus’ massive shadow on the clouds at sunrise.
Above the clouds all day.

Once past the snow cat turnaround, the altitude really hit me. It didn’t help that I forgot to bring enough water (only had 600ml), and was getting a bit dehydrated. The hike turned into a slog, reminiscent of Misery Hill on Mt Shasta — 10 steps, rest, 100 steps, sit down. When I got to the saddle between the two summits, a guide descending with sick clients, stopped me on the trail to offer me juice — “you look like you need it”. Indeed. At that point, I’ve already been eating snow to make up for the water I forgot to bring, so a quarter-full juice box he gave me was amazing, I drank some and saved the rest for after the summit. Somewhat rejuvenated, I pressed on to the final climb, trying to go as slow as possible, and minimize long stops. After what felt like eternity, I was on the summit! Few quick photos, and down I went.

Looking down on the traverse and the saddle between East and West summits from most of the way up the final climb.
Summit finally in view!
On top of Europe!

I think it was all mental, but as soon as I hit the summit, the fatigue was gone, I forgot about dehydration, and was moving downhill at a good clip, passing people left and right. Once below 17k ft, the snow turned into wet slush, so I took the crampons off, and glissaded/walked on foot all the way down.

Clouds got thicker and cool “windows” in them opened up as I descended.

In the end, it took me just under 8 hours to go up, and just over 2 to get down (https://www.strava.com/activities/653873865). Way slower than I assumed, but the goal was to summit, not set any speed record. (For what it’s worth, there are a couple races each year up the mountain, and winners are generally sub-3hrs on this route). Got very lucky with the weather, the wind that was forecasted never materialized, and I was sweating for most of the hike.

A fitting celebration at the cafe back near base camp/top of gondolas.

I really enjoyed the hike as the scenery was spectacular, and the physical challenge, while painful, was enjoyable in retrospect (Type 2 fun). I do wish there was more organization/regulation on the mountain as it is quite crowded, and somewhat polluted in the lower parts. On the flipside, lack of regulation means planning is easy — no permits or reservations needed, you can go with or without guides, and everything is very cheap, especially if you factor in the current exchange rates. For example, the ski lift ride (3 gondolas going up ~5k ft) was about $15, while a similar ride up Mont Blanc is around $100. And the cafe at the top will give you a great meal for $3, and a beer for a buck.

If and when circumstances allow me to return again, I would not hesitate to spend more time on the high mountains of the Caucasus!

Side notes

Chinese soldiers slogging up.
  • Saw a lot of camo’d people on the mountain on the first day — turned out Russian defense ministry was hosting a competition on Elbrus the following week, with soldiers from 27 countries, and some of them were training there already. It was cool/weird to see Chinese and Iranian soldiers in full gear & insignia hiking up the mountain. They all looked like they were in very good shape though!
  • Similar to Mt Whitney in the US, Elbrus is famous and easily accessible, which means every hour is amateur hour. Lots and lots of people who shouldn’t be anywhere near this mountain. Many who have never been at altitude, who are way out of shape, and quite a few smokers, including puffing while hiking up at 17k ft.