Summit Russia's Mt. Elbrus
‘The mountains are calling and I must go’ John Muir.
Mountains are addicting. Before I climbed Kilimanjaro last December, I had no intention of making the Seven Summits a bucket list item, but rather thought the idea of hiking Kili sounded rather exotic and very adventurous. However, during the hike I met so many other legitimate climbers and mountaineers that were working their way through the famous seven that I began considering this remarkable goal. Mountains tend to be in remote locations, the treks are expensive, most require training for specific technical skills, and all require a lot of time to climb. However, by the summit of Kilimanjaro I had already decided to add this massive undertaking to my bucket list.
The list of easiest to hardest mountains on the seven summits varies, but usually Mt. Elbrus is one of the first because it requires very limited technical mountaineering skills and can be accomplished in under a week. After completing Kili I immediately began planning to do Elbrus about 8 months later, researching companies and identifying what hoops needed to be jumped through in order to visit Russia. Here is a quick list of the major steps to climbing the mountain and a daily break down of what to expect.
Step 1: When to Go.
The best time of year to climb Mt. Elbrus is between late-June and August which typically has the most predictable weather. My trip was from 10-17 August and we had perfect weather every day. This was certainly a bit of luck as the forecast for the following week predicted storms, but generally that is the best time of year.
Step 2: Select the hiking company and package.
While it is possible to climb Mt. Elbrus without a guide, going through a company greatly reduces the logistical coordination and increases the likelihood of summiting. After reading numerous reviews and looking through the packages offered with dates and prices, I selected Beyond Red Square. Their economic package costs $1,455 and includes all lodging, meals, airport transfers, a letter of invitation (required for the visa application), coordinating rental gear, and of course the guide. They also assisted with the visa application process, provided rapid responses to all my questions, and sent a package with the detailed itinerary and a lot of information about what to expect in Russia far in advance of the climb.
Step 3: Book flights and any follow on tours in Moscow or elsewhere in Russia.
The dates of the stay in Russia must be finalized for the visa application and so it is important to figure out early the plans for your full trip. I added a day in Moscow on the back end of the climb to visit the Kremlin and Red Square, but easily could have spent a few more days there visiting museums and going up to St. Petersburg!
Step 4: Visa application.
Getting the Russian visa was a lengthy and challenging process and I recommend starting it at least 6 months prior to the climb in case of any administrative issues. The passport itself must be valid for at least six months after the climb is complete and must not have excessively worn or damaged pages. Since my passport would have been almost exactly at the six-month mark and was extremely worn with extra pages that had been added in, I went ahead and got a new passport. The visa application process itself was rather prolonged and as I prepared to send in the stack of paperwork, I was informed that the Berlin Embassy would not accept U.S. passports because the Russian Embassy was not returning them. Eventually I used a company in the U.S. to send my passport to and they processed the visa and returned it. Total it took nearly 5 months from start to finish and cost me nearly $400. That is certainly on the extreme side of difficulties for visas, but is still something that should be factored into the planning process.
Step 5: Training.
Minimum training is required to successfully summit Elbrus but it does require a moderate level of physical fitness and endurance. I am notoriously awful at training ahead of time for climbing, marathons, and pretty much everything based on a weak justification that I am fit enough for the Marine Corps. This time I had a better excuse for my lack of training due to a sea urchin accident in Senegal three-weeks prior that left my feet with about 60 spine fragments and a bad infection. By the time the climb started although I was fully walking again and the infection was down, not all of the spines were out. I say all of this just as reassurance that the mountain is certainly achievable not in peak shape and altitude seemed to be the most challenging aspect for people.
Because I saw photos online of climbers in crampons with ice axes and harnesses, I made the incorrect assumption that ice training was a prerequisite for Elbrus. Very rudimentary "technical mountaineering" skills are required which are taught on the mountain and the crampons are used for better grip but not for any technical climbing.
Step 6: Packing List.
For the packing list of what to bring and more expensive items that are available to rent on the mountain, click here.
After all the paperwork was finally in order, it was time to start the expedition! I arrived at the Caucasus Mineral Waters airport (MRV) where I was greeted by Andrew who had been answering all my questions via email the last several months, our guide Sergei, and several of the team from all over the world. The final members of the crew arrived that evening including Sammy, the legend who saved the day for me on Kili with a phone charger so I could take a picture at the top! Andrew gave us each small goodie bags (which even included homemade cookies) and we were off on the 3-hour drive to the base of Elbrus. That evening we gorged ourselves on a large traditional Russian dinner before turning in to rest up for all of the climbing ahead.
Day 1- Acclimatization Hike.
The first morning we loaded up small day packs and headed to Cheget, a nearby mountain for our initial acclimatization climb. We got to know the others in the group as we slowly ascended and adjusted to the thinner air, enjoying the sunny summer day. We spent only a few hours climbing before stopping for a delicious Russian fruit compote and chebureki that was served with Mt. Elbrus as a beautiful backdrop. After returning to the bottom of the mountain we picked up our rental gear and our guide did a final equipment check before we packed everything up.
Day 2- Base Camp and Ice Training
After an early breakfast, we linked up with our guide and took the chair lift up to base camp where we dropped most of our gear and started up the mountain. This gave us an opportunity to get accustomed to the rental equipment, like the large mountaineering boots, and learn some basic skills for climbing in the snow and ice. We each simulated sliding down the mountain and practiced stopping ourselves with the ice axe in case we were to slip and fall on a narrow part of the trail. As a group we also practiced using our belays to climb alongside a rope similar to the one near the summit and how to respond if one of the others in the group fell. After our guide was satisfied with our training, we returned to base camp to settle in and enjoy a hearty meal.
Day 3- Acclimatization Climb (5,000M/ 16,400Ft)
One of the most difficult days was Day 3 with the 5,000M climb. We steadily climbed all morning up the increasingly steep slope working on maintaining a good pace all the way past the Pastukhov Rocks. Favorable weather was on our side and during every rest break we all soaked up the beauty of the surrounding Caucasus range stretching out below.
Passing the 5,000M mark is a good indicator for the guide how everyone is doing with acclimating to the altitude in preparation for summit day, which called for a quick celebration dance probably to the chagrin of all the climbers below. We returned down to base camp for some light stretching and more heavy eating to replace all of the calories we had burned on the mountain.
Day 4- Rest Day
Although everyone was feeling good after the 5,000M climb, we adhered to the schedule and took the rest day to allow our bodies to recover and prepare for the big push to the top. Most of the day was spent hanging out reading books or playing cards, but while I was outside brushing my teeth, a fox popped his little head up. He explored around a bit before trotting off to find something more interesting, but it was definitely the highlight of my morning!
After another big family style dinner, everyone did gear checks and packed their bags for the next morning. It was nice having a group to run through the check list with and Boris, one of the other climbers, bandaged up my injured feet for the next morning. With nervous energy growing in anticipation for the climb, we all headed to bed to grab a few hours of sleep.
Day 5- Summit Day
Long before dawn began to break, we were all awake and loading up in our gear to start our summit push. As we stepped outside under the blanket of stars overhead, the trail up the mountain was already illuminated with the twinkling headlamps of other climbers slowly trudging up the mountain. At 5,000M the first red streaks of light indicting morning began to grow in the horizon. Two additional guides had joined our group to meet the 3 to 1 ratio requirement for climbers to guides. Step by step we made our way uphill in the cold morning air. Thankfully no wind was blowing and once the sun rose, the temperature quickly climbed.
In order to pass several of the other groups on the mountain, our guide opted out of us clipping into the ropes on the steeper portion of the ascent. We cautiously passed the others using our walking sticks and ice axes to navigate the snow and ice beside the narrow trail. At the saddle between the mountain peaks, we rested briefly to drink water and have a quick snack before making the final climb.
The top was surprisingly small with an even more negligible marker, but the 360 view overlooking Russia and Georgia was worth every step. Our group had made it the top of Europe and we spent about 20 minutes reveling in the accomplishment and enjoying the (mostly) quiet at the peak before hustling back down to base camp. The climb down was much easier on the knees in the snow than the rocky terrain on Kilimanjaro was and at the bottom we enjoyed some well-deserved beers.
A huge shoutout to the whole climbing group that made this the awesome experience it was- thanks Sammy, Boris, John, Nicolas, Baron, and Angie! Also thanks to Andrew for answering all my questions and Sergei for dealing with all of us the whole week!