North RouteThere was a lot of uncertainly leading up to this climb of Elbrus. Back in February there were a couple terrorist incidents reported in the news. Three Russian skiers were killed and others injured when their van was stopped by armed men on the way to the Mt Elbrus ski area. An explosion on Elbrus brought down some gondola cars on the ski lift. The government responded by engaging and killing terrorists in a battle near the mountain. The mountain was closed for a few weeks and then reopened. Things then stayed quiet in the area. Just weeks before we were to leave for Elbrus the mountain was closed again. There had not been any new incidents to trigger this closing. Only the onset of summer.
Meanwhile we had our visas, paid for plane tickets and arranged and paid for tours of Moscow and St Petersburg. Cancelling the trip entirely was not a reasonable option for us. Even if we couldn’t go to the mountain we were going to Russia. But we did want to climb.
We monitored the situation the best we could and learned no foreigners were allowed access to the easier south side standard route. Guiding companies were however successfully taking clients to the harder north side of the mountain. Normally the north side takes longer than the one week airport-back-to-airport window we had allowed for the south side. We knew things would have to fall in place just right for us to get the summit from the north. We also agreed we would rather go to Elbrus and not get the summit than not go at all.
To our advantage we live in Colorado. Most weekends we hike in the mountains. The previous weekend we slept 2 nights at 4300m and hiked above 4000m both Saturday and Sunday. We could arrive more acclimated than most clients so we asked Elbrus-Tours
if they could accommodate a shortened itinerary. They replied in the affirmative. Also their website mentioned arranging alternative hiking/climbing activities should we not be able to get to Elbrus.
My wife Dorthe & I left Denver on Wednesday June 8. We transferred at JFK for an overnight flight to Moscow. After a night at a Moscow airport hotel we flew to MinVody on Friday June 10. We were met at the airport by Sergy who would guide three others traveling with us, but climbing on a different schedule. We loaded our bags in Sergy’s SUV and waited for Lars and Anders, a couple guys from Denmark. We then drove to our hotel in Kislovodsk.
I had sent a deposit but still owed the balance which would be paid in cash. Sergy took me to a bank where I could change my US$ into rubles. We bought some water, fruit and trail mix at some stores around the corner from the hotel.
Saturday June 11
Saturday morning we met our guide Yuri who had climbed Elbrus hundreds of times. In addition to the Yuri, Sergy and the driver, there was a porter, Sasha and another client, Den, a Russian. Den would be climbing on the same schedule as Lars and Anders. We loaded our gear into a Soviet era 4WD van. A very basic but tough machine that would prove up to the roads to the trailhead.
After a stop at Sergy’s to leave gear that wouldn’t be going to the mountain ,we left on our circuitous route to the mountain. Because authorities have declared the mountain to be closed we couldn’t take the most direct road. By driving an extra three hours on back roads we would avoid the police checkpoint.
Another uncertainty was how close the vehicle could get to the trailhead. On a previous trip a couple weeks earlier everyone had to hike for 5 or 6 hours after the road became impassable with the spring mud. Fortunately we were able to drive the entire way, but not without some exciting maneuvers.
The trailhead is located at 8441’, 2573m which leaves over 10000’ to climb to the summit. It’s located in a large high valley field and covered with plants I associate with wet areas. I took these as an indicator how much it rains here. We were camped right next to a Russian army outpost. One personable soldier did most of the interacting with us. He quickly lets us know we weren’t to be taking pictures that show faces of any soldiers. There was no mention of the mountain being closed.
We got our tents pitched and that afternoon brought the first of what would be every day precipitation.
The northern route is straight forward in concept. There is a base camp which can be driven to, and a high camp at the base of the glacier - elevation 12312’, 3753m Teams will usually do a carry / acclimation hike to the high camp before moving there. After moving to high camp an acclimation hike to Lenz Rocks 14958’, 4559m also serves as an opportunity to practice traveling while roped. Summit day is a big day with over 6000‘ vertical. Some choose to establish a higher camp to shorten summit day. The trade off is the physical effort involved in establishing that camp along with less chance of getting any sleep. A map of the route can be found on the following website:
Sunday June 12
Since we had arranged our trip based on climbing the easier south side, we had no choice but to shorten the usual schedule for the north. That meant moving up to high camp right away. For us the elevation wouldn’t be an issue, but moving up in one push meant hiring a porter to lighten our packs to a more manageable weight. The understanding was the porter would carry our share of the common gear: tent, food, cooking gear and also take our double boots and crampons. We would still have our sleeping bags, mattresses, climbing harness, axe, clothes and other personal items.
The lower part of the trail was dry but wasn’t easy to hike on. This is not a constructed trail. It’s a braided network of trails that just happened. There are some steep spots with exposure in places. A feature part way up is the Aerodrome. This is a lightly sloping large flat area large enough to land airplanes. Yuri told us during the second world war the Germans used it as an airfield. Above the Aerodrome we started to have snow on the path. Closer to the high camp the snow was more continuous.
I was packing 25kg so was real happy to arrive in camp about 6 hours after starting. The other group had lighter packs so were faster, and were heading down as we were approached high camp. Also as we passed we found out the three of us could stay in a 4 person hut that night. Yuri, our guide handed over a tent to Sergy to pack back down since we wouldn’t be needing it.
Shortly after arriving it started snowing heavily. We were happy not to be pitching a tent. The porter Sasha and the other client Den arrived out of the storm. Sasha had packed a very heavy load which seemed to be most of the food for both groups for the duration. Not dehydrated stuff either. There were canned goods, cheese, packages of cookies, crackers, processed meat, produce, soup mixes, etc. I was surprised to see Den pull my double boots out of his pack! He was a client, but since he wasn’t staying didn’t have to pack his other things, so he had the room.
Monday June 13
Acclimation hike to Lenz Rocks. Start 8:35 Yuri at front of rope, then me, then Dorthe. There was only 5m of rope between each of us, 10m total. Yuri set a slow pace. We took a few short breaks but we were moving most of the time. I declared a longer break at a small group of rocks at 14491’, 4417m to tape my heels which were getting hot. We got to Lenz rocks 14958’, 4559m at 12:55. Not great time. After a break it only took about an hour to come back to the hut. After the acclimation hike Dorthe announced she didn’t think she could go for the summit. She felt she used all her energy to make it that far, and didn’t see how she could maintain the effort to make it all the way to the summit. She was sacrificing her chance at the summit to give me a better chance. Later when we would analyze the day we decided she wore too much for the sun on the glacier and became dehydrated.
The guides didn’t want her to give up her chance for the summit. They pointed out the following day would be a rest day, she could think about it then. She thought about it and stuck to her decision.
The other group arrived an we learned some bad news on the huts. We weren’t going to get to use the other 4 person hut. There were 8 of us. We still had use of one 4 person hut, but only one 2 person tent had been packed. Apparently the group that would take the other hut wouldn’t arrive until the next day so that put off the issue until the following day.
Tuesday June 14 Rest day.
Concern about the huts. All the guides seem to know each other so during the day place was found in existing tents for Sergy and Sasha. Den stayed with us. Lars and Anders stayed in the tent. The other group did their acclimation hike to Lenz Rocks.
That night Yuri and I would leave for the summit. Dorthe was still sure she wasn’t going to try it. The offer was made that Sasha could guide her to the closer east summit but Dorthe wasn’t interested. Because of the hut situation I mentioned to Yuri if we got back early enough it would make sense for us to pack down to base camp after returning from the summit. We agreed we would make the decision based on what time we got back. Also part of my thinking was I was getting tired of the hut. Since we only had one hut it was now the center of activity. Not only was there the cooking, there was weather every afternoon crowding people inside. I was getting cabin fever.
Wednesday June 15 Summit Day
The alarm was set for midnight. Yuri & I got moving at 1:20 with Yuri in the lead setting a slow but steady pace. Traveling on the rope I had to concentrate not to put in significant slack. Yuri’s stride was much shorter than mine, so I got into a routine of taking 2 or 4 steps and then letting the rope almost go tight, then another 2 or 4 steps. Yuri’s pace was such I never had any issues with breathing.
The snow was firm in the night and there were a lot of frozen boot tracks from the previous day’s acclimation hikes. I could see only one set of fresh tracks since the previous afternoon’s snow. We got to the lower small rocks at 4:00 am and Lenz Rocks at 4:30. After reaching Lenz rocks the route follows a series of rock out croppings until it is time to traverse across to the saddle.
In the pre dawn we could see it was shaping up to be a clear morning up high. The ubiquitous clouds were all below us. Yuri didn’t like to take many breaks but I declared a stop to take sunrise picture.
We got to the helicopter at 5:35. The helicopter clipped it’s tail while trying to land on a relatively flat spot. It’s a sensitive issue with the military. The soldier we spoke to the most knows the pilot and the pilot isn’t being blamed. However apparently someone posted pictures of the helicopter on the internet along with some nasty comments about the president. That didn’t sit well. When climbers get back to base camp their cameras are checked for helicopter pictures. If there are any pictures they have to be deleted. The soldier is polite and apologetic about this, but does insist. If you have pictures of the helicopter, do NOT post them on the internet. That could cause the military to decide they will participate in the closure of the mountain.
Above the helicopter is a double row of rock ribs. On the uphill we stayed near the rocks on the left. Above the ribs we topped out in sight of the east summit push.
We could see a small group above us heading up the east summit. Yuri said it would be 2 hours to do the lower east summit, but if we did the higher west summit it would be 5 hours round trip. What do I want to do? I told him if he had said it was 5 hours one way we would still be doing the west summit!
The traverse across to the saddle begins with only a little more than 400’ to gain for the saddle. Some of that elevation is gained traversing up out of the last of the rocks. Then it is a side slope on firmer snow towards the saddle. Time to stay sharp. There are a few patterns in the snow that suggest possible issues underneath in places.
Below the traverse, especially below the saddle there is a significant ice fall area. This would be a bad place to get off route in a storm. Up until the traverse we had someone else’s boot track to follow. Now any old tracks were weathered over.
We got to the saddle at 8:15 and took a break before the summit push.
There are multiple possible lines but we did a climbing traverse to a snow ridge. This was the hardest climbing so far. After gaining the snow ridge the slope eased considerably.
The final summit bump steepened again but the top was so close I didn’t mind it. At 9:58 am we arrived on top of Europe!
We only spent 10 minutes on top taking the obligatory pictures. There was light snow and land below us was covered in cloud. We could see across to the East summit but not far below the saddle. Yuri was concerned about the weather and also confessed to having a head ache so it was time to go.
We got back down to above the helicopter by noon. The weather was holding and we were below the most serious parts of the route. At 12:30 we were down below Lenz Rocks and back to high camp at 1:30 pm.
Since we were back early we stayed with our plan to pack down to base camp that day. After resting, eating and talking to the other group, we got going in a light snow at 3:30. With no porter I wore my double boots and packed everything else. Fortunately there were tents, food & fuel at base camp.
As we descended toward the Aerodrome the snow turned to rain. The rain increased in intensity. Sometimes it would let up, but it would never stop. I should have packed my large plastic poncho that covers both me and my pack. Below the Aerodrome it started getting stressful. It was a challenge to stay in control through the steep spots which now had slick mud. In several places we went off the trail for better footing. One must not forget if you get hurt in a spot like that it will be a really bad situation.
We got back to base camp at 6:30 pm and pitched our tents in the rain. Yuri spoke to some of the other guides and learned no vehicles had made it to base camp for three days because of rain. A group from the Netherlands told us they had to hike the last part of the road because the driver wouldn’t chance it.
We were concerned about our ride the next day. If the ride didn’t happen we would miss our flight back to Moscow on Friday. We were also dreading the heavy packs if we had to hike part of the road. Yuri told us he didn’t have the phone number for the driver, Sergy did. Yuri announced he was going to hike back up to high camp to get the number!
So there we were, in a leaky tent, soaked to the skin, scratching around to come up with a single layer of dry clothes to put on, shivering from the cold and wet, and not knowing if would get out of there the next day! I felt much better on the summit just hours earlier!
Thursday June 16.
It was not raining in the morning! The sun was out! We had our clothes hanging all over drying them out. Yuri returned from high camp. We were talking with newly arrived climbers with other companies. Dorthe gave away a couple items to a gentleman from Ireland who’s bags didn’t arrive on the plane. Then we saw a familiar looking vehicle arriving in the distance. We couldn’t be sure since there are several of that model 4WD traveling these rough roads. But it was our driver. And he presented me with a large (about 1.5l) bottle of beer. It was still morning, but we each had a glass. I had a few glasses! It helped for the ride back out that rough road.
After the mountain we spent the next week touring Moscow and St Petersburg.
UTM 38 T WGS 84
Easting Northing Feet Meters
Base Camp Tent 0298603 4811523 8441 2573
Etr1 0297160 4809704 9462 2884
Etr2 0296386 4808609 10970 3344
Etr3 0296294 4808556 11110 3386
Etr4 0296210 4808301 11298 3444
Etr5 0295853 4807205 12144 3701
Etr6 0295812 4807156 12231 3728
High Camp 0295726 4807065 12301 3749
High Camp Hut 0295697 4806994 12312 3753
Etr7 0295356 4805994 13290 4051
Lower Rock 0294855 4805310 14491 4417
Lenz Rocks 0294708 4804966 14958 4559
Rocks2 0294486 4803982 16302 4969
Helicopter 0294607 4804368 15853 4832
Etr8 0294200 4803564 17020 5188
Intersection 0294062 4803469 17194 5241
Top Rocks 0293971 4803412 17359 5291
Saddle 0293126 4803032 17619 5370
Elbrus 0292362 4803154 18499 5639
Summit Day Clothes
La Sportiva Nupste double boots
wool socks, synthetic socks
2 fleece pants
poly pro long johns
Gortex Jacket - removed at saddle
wind stopper fleece jacket
insulator fleece jacket
poly pro undershirt
Gortex hat - switched to baseball hat
Fleece neck gator
2 pair fleece mitts
Had down jacket, neck gator for face, extra hat & gloves in reserve
Used hand warmers on my water bottles - didn’t use for hands.
For a map I just received this one from climbing-map.com. It is 1:50,000 with a UTM grid on WGS84 and shows the north as well as the south side. I would love to have had it for the mountain but it has just been released.
Notes on the high camp.
High Camp was spread over a couple locations. We could see some huts several hundred meters away that we never visited. These appeared to accommodate larger parties. It’s possible the company you book with could arrange for you to stay there. The hut we stayed in belonged to the rescue service. They weren’t there yet but one of our guides was able to get permission to use it. These would normally be unavailable. Tents were pitched where ever they could find a level spot. Also there was at least one sturdy tent of the type you see in the base camp photo. The base camp sturdy tents were the company 5642.ru who I link for the online map.
Moscow, St Petersburg, Min Vody Flights
For all our Russia arrangements not handled by Elbrus Tours we used VisitRussia.com
They have a toll free number in New York and offices in Moscow & St Petersburg. After the mountain we toured Moscow for 2 days and then took the overnight train to St Petersburg where we toured for 4 days. VisitRussia arranged custom tours for my wife & I, all hotels, transfers and the train to St Petersburg. They also arranged the plane tickets from Moscow to Min Vody and the hotel for the night before heading to Min Vody. Everything they do is custom so they were happy to arrange around our mountain including making sure the airport transfer vehicles could handle our big duffle bags. We had the same guide for each tour in Moscow and also in St Petersburg. We paid in advance by credit card.
Elbrus-Tours – also known as Over the Rainbow
We were happy with how things came together. Anastasia was our point of contact. She was able to work with our itinerary and put the arrangements together. We realized everything would have to fall in place just right to have a chance for the summit. Elbrus-tours gave us that chance.
It helped that we went into this trip with significant mountain back packing and foreign experience. We live where we can hike above 4000m on the weekends. Winter climbs allow us to test ourselves and our gear in adverse conditions but less committing situations. I wouldn’t recommend this trip for those with little or no experience. Yes your guide can look out for you, but there are so many little things best experienced in stages on less challenging mountains.