Two British mountaineering instructors and expedition leaders explain the best way to tackle Elbrus, the highest tick in Europe, and one of the coveted seven summits. Jon Gupta takes the standard South Route while Rebecca Coles talks us through the lesser-trodden North Route.
Elbrus is an extinct volcano located in the central Caucasus mountains, and wholly in Russia. The mountain has two distinct summits, East and West. At 5,642m, the West summit is 21m higher than the East. Due to the mountain’s volcanic origins it has rounded summits and easy-angled slopes compared to many of the other mountains in the Caucasuses.
The vast majority of Elbrus ascents are made from the south side, where there is a little ski resort and a climbing hub. However, don’t start imagining beautiful wooden chalets, log burners and hot tubs – this is deepest south-west Russia! It’s pretty small with only a couple of lifts.
At the top of these lifts, at 3,845m, a scattering of huts belong to various local companies. There are a number more at 4,100m. If travelling independently you would need to book them through a local company or camp and cook in your own tent. The snow-line starts at around 3,600m on the south side, initially at a gentle angle, so crampons are often not required until higher up.
"Am I allowed to say Elbrus resembles a pair of breasts?" Photo: Becky Coles
On summit night most commercial teams use a Snowcat or piste groomer to transport them from the huts at 3,845m to Pastukhov Rocks at 4,650m, which leaves a healthy summit day of 1,000m.
The northern side of the mountain isn't as developed, giving a wilder, more scenic feel. The route is not technically difficult – an equivalent alpine grade would be no harder than PD. However, for this route you had better be fit – it’s a 1,900m ascent on summit day, and often a round trip of 12-16 hours.
The ‘North Huts’ are located on the moraines at 3,750m. The summit day involves an ascent from here to Lenz Rocks, a broken rocky ridge which leads to the East Summit.
To get to the higher West Summit, climbers must make a long traverse towards the col between the mountain’s twin peaks, where the route joins the South Route. This season, rope was fixed on this final steep section.
Having the right kit is essential on any big mountain, especially ones where the weather is very unpredictable. Elbrus can feel very benign on a perfect August summit day, but equally it can offer a really cold, windy, bitter experience (think a good Scottish winter battering at 5,000m!).
Take the time to get clothing and boots right! Photo: Becky Coles
Take the time to get clothing and boots right. You’ll need double boots, mitts, goggles and a box-wall down jacket. Yes, people climb it in lighter gear, but if it’s a cold day you risk needing to turn back. You’ll also require a rope, ice axe, crampons and harness as there are crevasses around.
If going with a mountain guide, they will bring the rope and you could learn the crampon skills on the trip, but a good base of winter walking would set you in really good stead for an ascent of Elbrus from either side. Plenty of hill walking and some expedition experience (eg. Toubkal, Kilimanjaro) would set you up well, too.
If tackling the mountain independently, you’ll also need to be competent in moving on glaciated terrain and crevasse rescue, as well as knowledgeable about acclimatisation and altitude. Winter navigation skills on a featureless white mountain are absolutely essential. In poor conditions Elbrus is very serious and people go missing every year.
People go missing every year in whiteouts on Elbrus. Photo: Jon Gupta
Fitness and acclimatisation
Fitness is really important for being successful in the big mountains and there is no better training than spending actual time the mountains. Anything that builds strong legs and big lungs will help. Don’t forget to train with big boots and a weighted rucksack. Spend long days in the hills, and aim to summit multiple peaks in a day.
Above 2,500m, your body will start to make small changes to adjust to the altitude, starting with an increase in heart rate and respiration rate. A good itinerary would start with a mix of climbing quite high but sleeping low, then progress to sleeping and climbing progressively higher. Rest days should never been underestimated – bring a good book or cards.
Spend a few days acclimatising on local peaks such as Cheget Peak 3,450m and sleeping in the valley at 2,000m. There a number of good options for day hikes around the valley. Most teams then move camp up to the huts at 3,850m for 3-5 nights, using the days to acclimatise on the slopes of Elbrus itself to around 5,000m.
It is common to use the first camp, Hathansu Meadow, as a base from which to walk up to the Stone Mushrooms at about 3,200m for acclimatisation. After staying at Hathansu Meadow for a few nights, teams then typically ascend to North Huts (3,750m) and spend several days acclimatising, culminating in an ascent to Lenz rocks (4,500-4,800m depending on how far you go). This follows the route taken on summit day, which helps teams familiarise themselves with the start of the route in daylight. A rest day at North Huts is usually taken prior to a summit attempt, if a weather window allows.
The first campsite. Photo: Becky Coles
Techniques and tactics
Have a midnight start on summit day if tackling the North Route. Start at 2-4am for the South Route.
Make sure you are hydrating and eating throughout the climb and don’t underestimate the cold and wind chill. If you are tackling the route independently take a GPS and mark the route as you go so that you can find your way back in poor visibility. Don’t rely on a GPS though – batteries don’t like cold.
There is a small hire shop on the south side, but it’s best to bring everything you need with you, so you know how everything works and where the zips/straps are when it’s dark and you’re wearing big mitts.
If you are independent then there are some small supermarkets where you can pick up some food and supplies on the south side. Even so, it’s recommended that you use a ‘lite package’ from a local company to help with some basic logistics and with your Visa/Permits applications.
Look out for your team mates, check in with each other along the way, and be honest. If in doubt, then there is no doubt, turn back.
The first hurdle to any Elbrus trip is getting a Russian Visa. You’ll need a Tourist Voucher, Letter of Invitation and a confirmed itinerary. If you book through a British company they will organise this for you. Make sure you apply for your visa in plenty of time as you will be required to visit a Visa Application Centre (Manchester, Edinburgh or London) in person to have your biometrics taken.
Be aware that the FCO currently advises against ‘all but essential travel’ in the region Elbrus is in. You should read the FCO advice to make sure you understand the risks. This FCO status can also affect insurance, so you should check that you are covered.
Climbing Elbrus from the south side. Photo: Jon Gupta
To access Elbrus from either side, most people fly to the Russian regional town of Mineralne Vody. It is possible to stay there or in towns close by like Pyatigorsk. There are several kit shops in Pyatigorsk.
From Pyatigorsk it is about a four-hour drive to the trail head. You’ll have to cross the river via a makeshift footbridge while your kit is driven across. Get an early start as the river rises significantly in the afternoon. The road is good until the final section into the camp where it becomes a track. I’d recommend getting dropped off on the road and walking in to avoid a hairy ride on the track and aid acclimatisation.
At Hathansu Camp, you can either camp or book to stay in base-camp-style tents or huts. There are large dining huts, which can provide meals. Porters can be used to get supplies from Hathansu Camp to North Huts, where it is possible to camp independently or pay for full support including meals and staying in a hut.
It’s a four-hour drive to the mountain villages of Chegget, Terskol or Azau, all at the base of the mountain. The road is good all the way to the villages and the views are simply breathtaking the closer you get. There are normally some police checkpoints along the way, so have you passport and paper work handy. However, over 11 trips to the area I have never been stopped. Generally everyone is really friendly towards climbers in the area.
The season for climbing Elbrus is May to September, with July/August providing the most stable weather.
About the authors
Jon Gupta is the owner of Mountain Expeditions, which provides overseas expeditions, UK mountain challenges, private guiding and instruction. Jon has lead nearly 60 major high altitude expeditions and 11 trips to Elbrus.
Twitter and Instagram: @mountexpeds; facebook.com/MountExpeds; mountain-expeditions.co.uk
Rebecca Coles is a mountaineering instructor and expedition leader. She led an Elbrus expedition for Jagged Globe via the North Route.
Twitter: @allbutessential; Instagram: @allbutessentialtravel; facebook.com/AllButEssentialTravel
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