Getting preparedAs we never been to Russia before, we searched for information on the internet and found a few tour companies with Elbrus on their agenda.
Pilgrim Tours was one of them and they seemed like a good choice. We have personal experience of glacier travel and snow climbing and camping from before (Alaska, Washington state, Sweden, etc.) and did not look for a guide. More so, we looked for some help with the Visa application and the transport from Mineralnye Vody to Azau. The Pilgrim Light package was suitable for us.
Russia requires that you have an invitation to something in Russia to approve your visa application. A hotel or a tour company can invite you and for us, Pilgrim help out. Getting the visa was a routine activity after getting the invitation, at least for us Swedish citizens.
We followed the usual regimen to train - running, carrying packs, etc. to prepare ourselves. We made flight reservations with Aeroflot with a connection in Moscow.
Flying in and arrivalA morning flight from Stockholm, Sweden, got us to Moscow SVO airport, terminal F, the international terminal. Immigration and then customs and we are in Russia for the very first time.
We researched the SVO airport before traveling and saw that the terminal for our connection was close by, to the arrival terminal.
After entering the arrival hall, cab drivers swarmed at us. This is when we realize that they are all liers. The web said that the other terminal is about 300 m away, there is a bus connection and a walkway.
The cab drivers said, as examples:
- It is 12 km to the other terminal
- You can't walk there, there is not sidewalk or walkway
- It takes you 30 minutes to walk there
- There is no bus.
We asked the local Avis office and they directed us to the departure level where the walkway is. Here's an area for confusion: if you don't know, a cab will take you on a trip around the airport, to cover the distance or time they said and then leave you at your connecting terminal, a bit more poor compared to when arriving.
Here's another difference: although ticketed all the way, we had to bring the luggage and check it in for the final destination. Stockholm airport could only check us to Moscow.
We walked the walkway with the luggage carts and it took us about 8 minutes. That's nothing for an Elbrus climber!
Aeroflot is harder on the weight limits than we are used to. We paid 130 rubles per kg from Moscow. That's about $2 / lb.
Arriving at the final destination was also different; the luggage tag from checking in, in Moscow, was needed to get the bags out from the luggage belt! A guy was checking the tag against the bag when you tried to get through. I guess this is because this is a poor part of Russia and a stolen bag is a probable situation.
When exiting the terminal, our driver from Pilgrim was waiting outside with a Pilgrim sign. We dragged the bags to his van and we were off towards Azau. A quick stop at a gas station for some water and potato chips. Arrived in Azau about three hours later, at 11 pm. We got our rooms from the English speaking Pilgrim representative and she asked us to come to the dining room. Dinner was waiting for us! Excellent!
Gear and ClimbingMy report is more on the obstacles around getting to the Elbrus region, but some things about the climb should be discussed. We brought freeze dried food for the climb with us, but we were able to pick up propane gas at both the hotel - from Pilgrim - and at a sport's store in Cheget, a few miles down the road. We got some cheese in a local store and also bread.
We are lazy climbers and used the tram to get to 3400 m and hiked from there to 4200 m where we set camp. Our three friends hiked all the way and slept one night before reaching our base camp at 4200 m. This was a very quick ascent to higher altitude and gave us some good headache.
The weather was warm in mid July and the snow really wet so we set camp in the rocks. Two acclimatizing trips to 4700 and to 5000 m respectively and then some rest, one snow day and finally we could climb.
Started at 2 am from the tents and reached the summit after about six hours. It was cold and my Scarpa Alpha was not really good for this low temperature. The sun reached us about an hour before we reached the summit and that helped my feet out.
This was a nice climb and without any real difficulty. We have been to Mt Rainier in north western USA. The Rainier summit day included more difficulties than Mount Elbrus does.
We spent one more night in the camp, giving a total of six tent nights before getting back to the hotel for two more nights before flying back.
Final remarksWe met two guided US groups (AAI and AMS) when descending to the saddle. This meeting gave me the idea to write a trip report.
Some reasonable experience of travel and of snow activities from the US, for instance by highpointing the 50 State Highpoints including the challenges in the NW and in Alaska, lay out a basis for a Elbrus climb without a guide.
We believe that with such a good basis, any such climber can do this on their own, as a small group. I don't say that you should climb alone but as your own little group. We don't speak Russian but managed to deal with this with our school English.
The question which mountain is the highest in Europe, Mt Blanc or Mount Elbrus, is not that difficult. When the Soviet Union split up in several different countries, the Eurasia border also moved. During the Union time and long before it, the border was traditionally drawn in the lowlands North of the Caucasian mountains, in the Kuma–Manych Depression. When splitting up the Union, with Georgia in Asia and Russia, in part, in Europe, the border had to move from the depression to the Caucasian ridge. Now Elbrus is in Europe and hence the highest mountain in Europe.