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Mt. Elbrus: Climbing Europe’s Watchtower

Traveling to Russia has always been on one of my lists of places to see.  I was even more motivated to visit when I heard that it was home to the tallest peak in Europe, Mt. Elbrus.  The guide service that I chose, International Mountain Guides (IMG), had a two-week program available in the summer that included stops in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and a climb to the top of one of the seven summits, Mt. Elbrus.  It was the perfect adventure, so I quickly signed up!

Mt. Elbrus is an dormant conical volcano that is part of the Caucasus Mountain Range, which is located near the Georgian border in Karachay-Cherkessia, Russia.  Mt. Elbrus has two summits, the Eastern summit with an elevation of 18,442 ft. and the Western Summit at 18,510 ft. The saddle between these two peaks sits at 17,769 ft.  Although Mt. Elbrus is not considered to be a technically difficult mountain to climb, the unpredictable weather and high winds make the standard route on this mountain extremely dangerous and strenuous.  Unlike other comparable mountains, Elbrus has a higher than average annual death toll, with 15-30 climbers dying on the mountain each year.  Due to the unpredictable weather conditions, it is easy for climbers (even experienced ones) to lose visibility and get lost.

In order to prepare for this trip, IMG recommended that climbers combine strength and conditioning with a strong aerobic training program.  Basically, that meant a lot of running (tempo and long distance runs – 8-10 miles) and strengthening my core muscles through weight training.  Because I live in the southern part of the United States where we have rollers instead of mountains, I also spent a significant amount of time “hiking” on a stair climber with a weighted backpack.  Yes, it was very boring, tiring and didn’t offer much of a variation, but having gone on two previous climbing trips, I knew that this kind of conditioning was worth it and would help me to actually enjoy the climb instead of just enduring it.

Traveling to Russia is a little different from other countries.  They do require travel visas, which take a bit of extra time.  The travel agency that IMG works with is excellent and will help you get everything organized. However, it is VERY important that you pay attention to when you are supposed to submit your documentation and to make sure that your passport does not expire at least 6 months prior to your departure date.

IMG also recommends that you take two duffels with you:  one for your mountaineering gear and the other for your clothing and toiletries as you tour the country. Make sure prior to traveling that you understand the airlines’ policy and weight limits for sports baggage so that you are not hit with any unexpected luggage fees.

Before the climb, we went on our first cultural excursion and toured the resplendent St. Petersburg.  It was an eventful day touring the Fortress of Peter and Paul, marveling at the iconic St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and ending the day with a boat ride through the famous canals of St. Petersburg.

Peter and Paul Fortress

St. Isaacs Cathedral

Canals, St. Petersburg

The following day we took an early flight to Mineralyne Vody and then took a bus ride to our hotel in Terskol.  No time was wasted the following morning as we ventured out on our first acclimatization hike. We spent another day of acclimatizing and had a quick refresher course on crampons, harnesses, and ice axe self-arrest.

On Day 7, we officially began our Mt. Elbrus adventure.  Unlike other mountain climbs, this one didn’t start near the base of the mountain.  We first drove to Azau Village to take a cable car ride to Mir Station and from there we took a chair lift to Garabashi.  Although you can hike this part up on your own, a large majority of folks take the cable cars and chair lift saving themselves about 3-6 hours.  Garabashi is at approximately 12,467 ft. and if you’re from the south like me, you definitely begin to feel the altitude.  After a brief rest, we continued on to our own private hut which was about 1 ½ to 2-hour hike and at an elevation of 13,500 feet. Finally, some time to pause and reflect and contemplate the upcoming summit climb.

Our hut was adequate.  It had three rooms.  The large room served as the dining area with a stove and long table and benches.  The two smaller rooms and two platforms were for our sleeping bags. Our hut was surrounded by other similar structures with an outhouse close by.

On Day 8, we went on another acclimatizing hike for about 2 ½ to 3 hours to Pastukhov Rocks.  The weather was good and very clear and promised more of the same for our summit climb.  After our hike, we had a hearty meal, discussed the itinerary for the big day, and did a final gear check.  Everyone was excited about tomorrow and looking forward to the challenge that Mt. Elbrus presented.

Climbing at Mount Elbrus

We were awakened a little after midnight and after a quick breakfast with lots of hot coffee, we finally began the much-anticipated ascent to the top of 18,510 ft.  With our line of sight on only what our head lamp flashed before us, it was a slow steady climb for our team.  The weather was good, but the wind was strong and the temperature was extremely cold. Other groups were starting early as well and could be seen in the distance with lines of headlamps moving steadily along.

Although we were going to be covering a lot of altitude in a short amount of time, it was not necessary during this part of the trip to be roped together.  For the better part of the trip we had our ski poles out along with crampons.  After we regrouped at the Saddle (17,710 ft.), the climb became significantly steeper.  So we packed our ski poles away and took out our ice axes. With it being July, it was peak climbing season and we were surprised to see a bit of wait along this part of the mountain.

By this time, we had been climbing for about 11 hours.  The fatigue and cold weather were starting to affect me and I felt extremely nauseous.  While we were waiting our turn for the final push, I started vomiting a little, which immediately raised concerns among the guides and my climbing team.  This was the first time this had ever happened to me; however, after taking in some water with electrolytes and a little bit of rest, I felt so much better and was ready to push on.  Thankfully, I had no more issues after that and was able to enjoy the resplendent view of the summit and feel the satisfaction of making it to the top.  Coming down the mountain was much easier, though we timed it just right as snow started falling heavily toward the end of our descent.  We were all very grateful for the hot meal and tea when we arrived at our huts.

The following morning, we headed back to Terskol and enjoyed a day of sight-seeing in the Baksan Valley.  The next morning, we drove to Mineralnye Vody and flew to Moscow.  Moscow was amazing and I thoroughly enjoyed touring the Kremlin and Red Square. We also took another boat tour, which was a great way to see this beautiful city.

The Kremlin

Red Square

That evening we took a late flight to Frankfurt and from there went to our separate destinations.  It was a wonderful trip overall and a memorable climb to the top of Europe’s tallest peak.

 

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