Elbrus FAQ
18,513' ,5642 meters
Here are some common questions about climbing Elbrus. I am focusing on the North side because I climbed on that side instead of the more common South. This was one of my Memories are Everything ® expeditions. Since I am not a guide nor a professional climber, this information is based on my experience and are my opinions so always consult with a professional before making any serious climbing decisions!

About Elbrus Training, Gear & Communication Expedition Basics My Experience

About Elbrus

Q: Where is Elbrus
A: It is located in Russia. Mount Elbrus is an extinct volcano in the Caucasus Main Range, the European border with Asia in southern Russia. Mt. Elbrus has two main summits - the higher western summit at 18,513'/5642m and the eastern summit at 18,442'/5621m. The first ascent of the west peak was in 1874 by a Russian army team and the east in 1829 by an English team. Mont Blanc is sometimes consider the highest in Europe but Elbrus technically holds that honor. View Mt Elbrus in a larger map.

Q: When is it usually climbed?
A: The normal climbing season is May to September. The climb is quite short by 7 Summits standards taking less than a week at most.

Q: I understand that Elbrus's north side is just a simple walk-up. How hard is it?
A: It was not 'easy' but It depends on what you have done. I climbed the north side and of our team of 9 climbers, only myself and one other summited. The elevation gain was large with the base camp at 8,200' and the summit at 18,513' plus a 6000' summit day. The climbing involved rope travel, crampons, ice axe, glaciers and steep snow slopes. Elbrus is often underestimated, and takes lives each year. The north side is becoming more popular given the poor state of the south for people interested in climbing.

Q: And what about Elbrus's south side?
A: I have not climbed that side but from everything I hear, it is straightforward albeit a bit of a dump. It is very popular for people looking to "check-off" Elbrus for their 7 Summits climb or for Russians on holiday. Elbrus' south side is technically easy and includes a cable car up to the 12,500' level. It is snow slope from there to the summit. You can stay in 'huts' which are single room, rock walled building with tin roofs at 12,700' and/or the Barrel Huts, 13,600'. A snow-cat is reported to be available for climbers who want a ride even higher - up to 15,750.

Q: How does Elbrus compare with Rainier or Aconcagua?
A: It is similar to Rainier with the short climbing period and relatively easy snow slopes. With a summit of 18,513' it offers altitude difficultly between the two. The weather can be extremely harsh stopping teams cold. With only two camps on either side, carrying loads is usually not an issue unless you want to carry your own tents, etc.

Q: How does Elbrus compare with the other 7 Summits?
A: It is one of the easiest that still offers snow climbing. The gain from the north base camp is about 10,000' and only a few thousand from the south, so it is easy by that standard.

Q: Is a Elbrus climb dangerous?
A: Absolutely. As with most mountains that have a reputation for being easy, they are also deadly and Elbrus is no exception. About 25 climbers die each year due to ill-preparedness or the weather. It can be extremely cold and windy. However literally thousands of people have summited Elbrus included a Soviet team in 1956 of 400 climbers!

Q: How many people had summited and how many people had died trying?
A: There are no figures released for Elbrus but from what I saw on the north climbing with a local guide service, the chances of making the higher west summit is low.

Training, Gear & Communication:

Q: How did you train for this climb?
A: I did a lot of running for aerobic conditioning plus weight training for the heavy loads. In 2011, I climbed other mountains extensively as part of my 7 Summits program.

Q: Was altitude a problem on this climb?
A: Yes, it is always a challenge on these big mountain climbs. Many people feel some type of AMS above 11,000' and we had half of our nine member team quit just above the 12,000' High Camp. As I mentioned before, I had already climbed four other 7 Summits peaks in the previous 6 months, so I was in excellent condition and never felt the altitude or the strain.

Q: Can you prepare for the altitude?
A: Not really. The common approach is to move slowly up the mountain (1000' a day maximum) spending your days at a higher altitude than where you sleep up until your summit bid. The human body simply does not function well at high altitudes and especially above 8000m (26,300'). As you go higher, the barometric pressure decreases, although the air still contains 21% oxygen, every breath contains less molecules of oxygen.

Everest legend Tom Hornbein explained it to the American Lung Association this way:

The lower oxygen stimulates chemoreceptors that initiate an increase in breathing, resulting in a lowering of the partial pressure of CO2 and hence more alkaline blood pH. The kidneys begin to unload bicarbonate to compensate. Though this adaptation can take many days, up to 80% occurs just in the first 48 to 72 hours. There are many other physiologic changes going on, among them the stimulus of low oxygen to release the hormone, erythropoietin to stimulate more red blood cell production, a physiological and still acceptable form of blood doping that enhances endurance performance at low altitudes. Adaptive changes are not always good for one’s health. Some South American high altitude residents can have what’s called chronic mountain sickness, resulting from too many red blood cells; their blood can be up to 84-85% red blood cells. The increased blood viscosity and sometimes associated pulmonary hypertension can result in right heart failure.

You cannot do much to acclimatize while at a low altitude but there are companies that claim to help the acclimatization process through specially designed tents that simulate the reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations. I have no personal experience with these systems but you can find more details at the Hypoxico website. They cost about $7,000 or can be rented for about $170 a week. Outside Magazine posted an article in 2013 questioning their effectiveness.

Q: What kind of equipment did you use?
Click for a larger view of my Everest gear. A: Mostly I use the same gear I used on Denali. Lot's of layers. My personal technical equipment included a long handle ice axe, harness, carabineers and crampons. It is always critical to protect my toes, fingers and face since these were most susceptible to frost bite. As for warmth, I always wear a knit cap and at least liner gloves when I get the least bit cool - regardless of the outside temp. I use a 3 layer system of Merino wool base layer (top and bottom), heavier fleece as in the Mountain Hardware Power Stretch (a Farmer's John kind of suit) or just my Patagonia Guide Pants depending on how cold it is that day then my top wind or warmth layer e.g. Patagonia Micro Puff and/or JetStream Shell. When the winds pick up and the temps hover near 0F, I add my Feather Friends 850 Fill down jacket plus my mitts. I have a gear page for reference. I am very pleased with all my gear but had a few standouts that I note on my gear page.

Q: Anything special in your gear for Elbrus?
A: I used everything on my gear page under Elbrus. We had excellent weather in mid August with temps never below 10F. But Elbrus can be extremely cold and windy so multiple down layers are required. My boots were the Kayland 6001 and were warm enough.

Q: Did you use a satellite phone?
A: For details on my expedition communications, please see this tutorial. For details on my expedition communications, please see this tutorial. I used an Iridium phone to post dispatches on this site. Cell phones connections are available on the North side of Elbrus a short walk from base camp and widely available on the south.

Expedition Basics

Q: Which route is most popular?
A: The south side by a huge margin. The standard route on Elbrus' south is technically easy and includes a cable car up to the 12,500' level. It is snow slope from there to the summit. Climber stay in 'huts' which are single room, rock walled building with tin roofs at 12,700' and/or the Barrel Huts, 13,600', which are, well, huge barrels. A snow-cat is reported to be available for climbers who want a ride even higher - up to 15,750. It is common to have over 100 climbers going for the summit in a single day in July.

Q: How long will it take?
A: 1 week or less on the mountain plus another few days to get to and from Russia. A visa is required to enter Russia and takes a few weeks to obtain.

Q: How much does a standard climb cost with and without a guide?
A: The costs can range from $1000 to $5000 depending on who you use. Western companies offer services more familiar to western climbers including hygiene, food, safety procedures and group gear. However they usually partner with a local Russian guide service.

Q: Do I need a permit to climb?
A: Yes. All climbers must register and pay a fee through your local Russian guide service. This is usually handled by your US or European company if you use one.

Q: Do I really need a guide for Elbrus?
A: I cannot imagine trying to climb Elbrus without local support at a minimum plus speaking fluent Russian. Elbrus is a serious high-altitude climb and it is in Russia (obviously) so there are not only climbing issues but cultural ones to work through. Some people go to Elbrus without a formal guide and use a local service on the south side. This is rare on the north. There are usually a lot of climbers on Elbrus so you would probably not be alone but easily could be. In harsh weather (white-outs) or in a medical emergency, you will be on your own so consider your skill level carefully. Also crevasse danger is real, especially on the north, and always present on the lower glacier area so crevasse rescue skills must be second nature to everyone on the team. Climbing alone or in too small of a team is never a good idea. You must bring a two-way radio and a sat phone in my opinion and have the frequency or number of the local rescue resources already programmed in.

Q: Are there local guides for Elbrus?
A: Yes, many services are available online. Just be aware that you are dealing with Russian customs and they may be quite different from your other guide service experiences. Elbrus Tours and Pilgrim Tours both offer logistics only services without a guide and VisitRussia.com can help with visas and travel. These might be good alternatives for extremely experienced climbers and world travelers but not for novices on either front imho.

My 2011 Experience

Elbrus summit Q: Did you summit?
A: Yes, I reached the West summit, the higher of the two, on August 11, 2011.

Q: Why did you choose AlpsIndustria as guide services?
A: I was signed up to climb from the south side with International Mountain Guides (IMG) but similar to most guide companies they cancelled their climb after local officials closed that side due to violence in early 2011. Phil Ershler helped me get on at the last possible minute with Alps so that I could continue my 7 Summits program in 2011.

Q: How did they perform?
A: Very well but everything has to be framed with respect to the Russian climbing culture. The logistics were smooth including airport pickup and hotels. I always felt that someone was looking out for me. The food at base camp was better than at the High Camp where it was very basic as is normal with all high altitude climbs. The lead guide, Daniel, was quite skilled but spoke very little English. We climbed mostly in the heat of the day for some unknown reason. The tents were a mix of different brands but were in good condition. The kitchen tents had basic folding stools or chairs and dishes were plastic bowls. Overall the entire staff was professional and friendly.

Q: What were the camps on the north like?
A: I climbed from the north side. The east and west summits were clearly visible for miles. We took a 5 hour drive from Pyatigorsk on dirt roads to a primitive base camp located in a cow pasture at 8,200'. There were many other teams located here and it was quite noisy and crowded. There was a tent toilet in the field and a running stream nearby people used for bathing. The High Camp was at 12,000' on volcanic rock at the edge of the permanent snow fields of Elbrus. Because flat space was at a premium, the tents were closely spaced and it was noisy at night. The toilet was a spot on the rocks which was covered with human waste and toilet paper. Water was taken from the glacier run-off and boiled.

Q: What was the route to the West summit like?
A: From the High Camp at 12,000' it followed a direct path to Lenz's rocks around 14,000'. There teams went directly up to the lower east summit or veered right towards the higher west summit. We roped up on the lower glacier and just below the west summit due to large crevasses. The snow was firm until the August daytime sun created a slick mush. It was a 6,000' gain from High Camp to summit and took 7:30 minutes up and 4 hours down with frequent smoke breaks for our guide. The final climb to the summit starts with a 1,000' steep snow slope with switchbacks and then traverses across a high plateau to a small bump on the most westerly end of the West summit. There a plaque in Russian marks the true summit. The views were outstanding.

Q: What kind of weather conditions did you have?
A: It was not very cold. Night temps were in the teens and day time in the 70's and 80'sF. It was boiling on the glacier in the midday sun.

Q: Did you use bottled oxygen?
A: No, supplemental oxygen is usually only used above 26,300'.

Q: Would you climb Elbrus again?
A: Probably not. The climb was interesting but not very challenging. It was being in Russia that made Elbrus interesting.

Bottom Line

Elbrus is located in a beautiful area between the Causan and Black seas in Southern Russia with green grass covered rolling hills. It attracts many people for the 7 Summits or to climb Europe's highest peak. Many Russians from Moscow use it as a outdoor holiday with little intention to summit. Elbrus is more of a cultural experience than a mountaineering one. It is kind of like a extra high Rainier or Mont Blanc.