Mount Elbrus (5.642 m.) is the highest peak in Europe (Western Summit – 5.642 m., Eastern Summit – 5.621 m.), and one of the Seven Highest Summits on our planet. It is located in the North Caucasus, in Russia, next to the border of Georgia. The Mount is in the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range, which is one of the most rugged mountain ranges in the world. It is one of the technically easiest summits of this altitude (if climbing via the classic South Route). Anyways, sudden storms and extremely cold weather are very common. The biggest challenge is to overcome the high altitude and a long distance track during the summit day.
I decided to ski-tour Mt.Elbrus solo in May 2017. It was my first experience climbing and ski-touring at this altitude and the first time in the Caucasus Mountains, so below I want to share my experience and some useful information about the trip and the region.
I have climbed some summits around the world, without a guide, but as I said, it was my first time in Russia, where it is not easy to travel independently and especially to get a visa (at least for me, Andorran citizen). So I started to look for a guided climb. After checking the entire web, finally, I have chosen a local Elbrus guiding company - Russian Mountain Holidays.
I think it has been the best choice I made. I contacted them, we've been in contact and they've been helping me with all the preparation. They helped me with the Visa application process and of course, I didn't worry about any local logistics, like transfers, hotels, accommodation at the mountain huts and food. Everything was included in the price and honestly, organized very well. So, I just took my flight to Mineralnye Vody Airport (via Moscow) and waited for my Visa. Everything was looking perfect, and I was just waiting May to come!
Searching for a guiding company I have also checked quite a lot of foreign (European and US) companies who also organize guided climbs to Mt. Elbrus, as when you Google Search all the foreign and local companies come all together. As it turned out later, in most of the cases, absolutely all the foreign operators just buy the tour packages from the local companies and resell the much more expensively! Sometimes they send their guide as a trek leader and include a couple of days in Moscow for sightseeing, but at the same time the price for the same trip increases in 5 and even more times! So in any case, I would say, from the very beginning it really makes sense to search for a good local guiding company. You will save tons of money and will get exactly the same level of service. Before to book with RMH, I’ve also checked very cheap ones, but for me, it seemed like they don’t have a good reputation.
Searching for a good local company, first of all, for me it was important to find the detailed answers to the following questions I had:
The Visa application process went super easy for me. After I have contacted RMH, they just asked me for a scanned copy of my passport and straight after they got it, they sent me an official Invitation Letter for the Russian Visa, with which I applied and successfully got my Visa in a few weeks.
Basically, to apply for a Russia Visa is just to find a visa service office in your city and they will help you with your tourist Visa application process. They will check all the documents you have and will help you to submit your Visa application form
correctly. For me, it was the best and the easiest way. If you apply directly to the Russian Embassy, it may be a bit complicated sometimes, but it really depends on what country you are applying from. Upon arrival at the Mineralnye Vody Airport (MRV), I was greeted by Vitaly Stegno (the CEO and Lead Guide of the Russian Mountain Holidays. Also, he is a Certified Ski Guide by the Canadian Mountain Guides Association) and Sergei Antonomov (our second guide). As I found out later, he is also a Russian rock climbing Champion! So we had two guides for a group of two people! The experience from the very beginning was good. Vitaly and Sergei were very professional and knew their job well. What's also important, they both spoke pretty good English and I felt safe. In Elbrus region, it was almost impossible to find somebody who can at least somehow explain something in English! Also, I liked that it is a family business and the Stegno family has been guiding people to Mt. Elbrus for many years since 2000.
Basically, gear list for climbing Elbrus is standard as for any serious climbing in the big mountains and requires more attention to details and warm layers! During Spring, the temperatures at night can dramatically drop down to - 30 / - 40 degrees. During the summer period, it could be around – 20 degrees at night. Usually, the Summit day starts at 2/3 AM and when it’s windy, it’s always very cold. Sometimes, even in the good composite expedition boots, it is not super hot to walk up, as you walk very slow, and in ski-touring boots, it’s getting cold even faster. While packing, it is always better to count on cold temperatures and to take warm clothes from reliable brands. It is better to not need something on the mountain than you will have to search for it on spot and lose your time. As for me, I sent the list of items I need to hire to my Lead Guide (Vitaly) in advance, and they have prepared everything before my arrival, so we didn’t spend time on it in Terskol.
I'm always very slow packing my gear, and always doubting what to take and what not (I'm a girl...) but this time it was easy.
Here you can check a detailed Gear List for Climbing Elbrus with pics and good examples, which makes this part easier.
As I have already mentioned, the trip starts at the Mineralnye Vody Airport (MRV), so in any case, you will need to get there. Wherever you travel from, usually the fastest and the easiest way is to get there via Moscow. There are few big airports in Moscow: Sheremetyevo (SVO), Domodedovo (DME), and Vnukovo
(VKO). Also here are some local airline companies who have flights from Moscow to Mineralnye Vody every day: S7, Aeroflot, UTair. I have used S7. Honestly, they were not the best, but they had the most suitable flight which lands at the MRV airport at 12:00. According to the trip schedule, it was necessary to arrive before 13:00.
So, I landed at the Mineralnye Vody Airport, and Vitaly Stegno together with Sergei were already waiting for me. They picked me up and then we started the drive to the RMH mountain lodge in Terskol village. During the drive, we picked up my climbing partner Will, from the US, who arrived a day early. We arrived at the lodge, and had a nice dinner all together. The adventure was ON!
If you travel without any guiding company, the only way to get from the airport to Terskol is by taxi or private transfer. The drive takes around 3 hours. From my experience, I can safely say that the best and the easiest way is to order a private transfer straight from RMH, because they do offer private transfers from the airport to Terskol on their private RMH bus. Why? Because they speak English and they charge the same amount of money as the usual taxi, but there are 6 places in their bus and a lot of space specially designed for duffels and gear, so if you travel like a team, it's the best option. There are also a lot of taxi drivers straight outside the airport, but they charge much more and always try to deceive you!
To order a private transportation from the MRV Airport to Elbrus, you can email RMH straight at: firstname.lastname@example.org
DAY 1 | 13th of MAY:
Arrival day. Transfer from Mineralnye Vody Airport to Terskol village. Accommodation at the Lodge.
DAY 2 | 14th of MAY:
Acclimatization day. Hike to Terskol waterfalls. We had breakfast in a very small and cozy village's restaurant, and then we went for a hike to the Terskol waterfalls. We started walking from the lodge (2.300 m.), and we climbed for approx. a couple hours to the waterfalls (3000 m.). The views were amazing. We were seeing all the Greater Caucasus Range, mixing rocks and snow... So beautiful. It was no snow to the waterfall, so perfect acclimatization path. We decided to go a little bit higher to the snow line, and then turned back. On this day we did almost +1000 meters of vertical drop, and didn't even feel that! So it was perfect! Back to the lodge, we had a nice shower and then dinner at the same restaurant. Overnight stay at the Lodge in Terskol.
DAY 3 | 15th of MAY:
Ascent to the Mountain Hut at 3.850m. Hike up to 4300m. We had breakfast again at our place, which was perfect because we were able to choose our breakfast every day. We packed our bags and had a short drive to the cable car. We took all the water, food, and equipment to the cable car, and after a few cabin
transfers, we were at our High Camp Mountain Hut. We also had a new partner in crime coming up with us - the SUUPER cook (I have to say she is the best cook ever of all times! It's not easy at all to cook at almost 3.900m, but she did it flawlessly. So, we had some lunch, putted all our gear at the hut's room, and we went for an acclimatization climb. It was not a high season on Elbrus, so the hut was not full. We were lucky and we've got a room just for ourselves! So, we climbed up to almost 4.300 meters on a sunny day. The views were just stunning! We took some pictures and skied down back to the hut. The weather was absolutely amazing! Had some rest, and then dinner all together (with another group who we met). Sleep time.
DAY 4 | 16th of MAY:
Acclimatization day. Hike up to Pastukhova Rocks (4.800m). We had breakfast, packed our light bag, and we went for a hike. We hiked up to the same altitude as on the previous day, and then we kept going a little bit more. We went up to Pastukhova Rocks (4.800m). All of us, we were feeling really good, and not feeling the altitude, so we were looking to go a little bit further, but then the weather changed and it started snowing and it became very windy. We were happy about that weather because we have had fresh snow for the upcoming days and especially for Summit Day. We had some lunch up there and decided to turn and go back to the hut. Had some rest. Dinner. Sleeping time.
During the snowfall and the windy weather at 4.800 meters at Pastukhova Rocks.
DAY 5 | 17th of MAY:
Rest day. It supposed to be our rest day, but it was snowing all night long and the snow conditions were just too good to stay in the hut. I was feeling very good and strong, so we went with Sergei for a fast hike to catch some fresh pow. We did the same route as the first acclimatization day up there. We did a fast climb up to 4.300m and skied down. The weather was really cool, and the snow was very good as well. Great day out! We went back to the hut and had lunch with Will all together. Had some rest, and then early dinner. Early sleeping time, next midnight it was our summit day.
Skiing conditions up there are amazing!
DAY 6 | 18th of MAY:
Summit day. We woke up at midnight. Had breakfast, get ready and at 1 AM we started the climb. It was night time, dark... But we've putted out lights and started climbing. The weather was good at lower altitude, and not so cold. We did a couple stops to drink, and just kept going up. At around 4.300 meters the weather started changing. It started being very cold, snowing, and temperatures were dramatically falling down. It was very windy. We kept going. The sunrise was starting, and the views were just so amazing, but conditions were so hard! When we were at Pastukhova Rocks (4.800 m.), the snowcat with other climbers passed us (the previous day we decided not to take the snowcat, so we've been the only people up there climbing from 3.800 m.). When we passed all the Rocks, at almost 5.000 meters, we met all the people who were jumping down from the snowcat. We took our skis out and decided to put our crampons on. The weather was too bad to keep going with skis on, and the slope was too icy. A bit later, the weather became too bad. Conditions were too dangerous to keep going and we have decided to turn back down. I took out my crampons, and put my skis on again. I took my down jacket and put it on. Just 1 minute after putting the jacket, I took a picture, and it was already frozen! (See the picture below) We were at -30º, with 70km/h winds, fog, and snow. Really hard conditions. We skied all the way down to the hut pretty fast. Once we were there, we had a warm coffee, and we packed all our gear to go down. We had some rest, and at 8 AM we took the first cable car to get down to our lodge in Terskol. We had lunch at our restaurant, some rest, a finally lovely shower! At dinner, we have decided to spent our reserve day in Pyatigorsk city.
The gorgeous sunset when going up.
My frozen Down Jacket, in just 1 minute.
DAY 7 | 19th of MAY:
A day in Pyatigorsk City. We had breakfast at our restaurant in Terskol. After breakfast, we packed our bags, and then we went to Pyatigorsk City. We stayed at a very nice Hostel in the historic center of the city. While Will and I were accommodating at the hostel, Vitaly took Sergei back home to the city of Kislovodsk. We had some rest, and then we went to the downtown to buy some lunch at the supermarket. We walked a little bit in the center, and then got back to the hostel to have some lunch. After that, Vitaly was already back, and he took us to tour around the city. I was very surprised! I was not expecting such a lovely and green city! We walked around the city and visited the underground cave with an underground lake inside Mt. Mashuk called "Proval". We decided to go back to the hostel by walking around Mt. Mashuk, and we've been caught in a super hard rain! Vitaly's brother (Slava) came to save us. Then we have visited a very nice restaurant on the rooftop. We had dinner up there, and then Vitaly took us back to the hostel.
DAY 8 | 20th of MAY:
Departure day. Transfer from the hostel to the airport. Fast drive to the airport, where after checking in, we said goodbye. I left Will, Vitaly, and his brother Slava, and I started my flights back home. My trip was over, and while we didn't make the summit because of weather, I was already planning my come back.
After my trip, I was very sad to not to summit Mt. Elbrus. But I had a couple long flights home, and I realized that this trip was not about to make the Summit. Of course, I really wanted to summit, and this is why I was already looking for new dates to go back and finish it even before landing home. So this is exactly what I did. A couple months later, in August, I landed again at the Mineralnye Vody Airport. I’m not going to explain step by step the trip because it was pretty much the same. But this time without skis. I just have to say, even if the trip was the same, the experience was completely different, and of course, perfect again. The group that I was in was lovely. Bigger than in May, and that's the fact that made the expedition a really great one. The group was formed of people from Hong Kong, India, Costa Rica, Switzerland, Netherlands and myself from Andorra. It’s been perfect. I was so happy to see Vitaly again at the airport! It’s been like seeing again a member of my family since a long time! All the trip has been a blast! And we all reached the summit! I was so so happy about that! Here are some pictures (some of them are from RMH) from this second attempt, and you can see how beautiful it was again! A lot more pictures you can find on RMH Facebook page.
All the adventure, all the experience, were really really worth it for 100%. I keep all these sunsets and sunrises, the amazing views up there, the unexpected quality of snow (in May), and of course, the amazing people who I met in this amazing part of Russia. The Caucasus was amazing. Russian Mountain Holidays made my 2 trips the perfect ones, and they just really became a part of my family! I'll be back there one day again for sure!
From my experience, I can safely say that Elbrus is absolutely safe to travel area! What they say in mass media, unfortunately, isn’t really true. All the people I meet there were extremely open, positive and ready to help with anything!
In Elbrus region, you need to have Russian Rubles with you. Nobody will accept EURO or USD. So it is better to change money in advance. It’s still possible to change it on spot, but sometimes it might be difficult because there are only 3 ATMs in Terskol Village and sometimes only one could work. There are also ATMs at the Mineralnye Vody airport and on the way to Terskol in the city of Pyatigorsk and in the city of Tyrnyauz. We stayed at the RMH Lodge in Cheget and there is one ATM in 2 minutes walk in the big Soviet Hotel, called “Cheget”. Also, there is another ATM in Terskol village in the hotel called “Elbrussiya” and another ATM is located in Azau, near the new ski-lift ticket window. Regarding food, as I mentioned, for me everything was included and we had meals 3 times a day. At the high camp we had our personal chef Anna, and she cooked for us during our stay in the mountain hut. Even if you travel alone, there are a lot of different local restaurants in Cheget with authentic local Caucasian cuisine. You will never have any problems with food in the Caucasus! The food is amazing here and there are a lot of places to eat. We ate at the very small local family restaurant in Cheget, called “Yujnyi”. Also, there are few grocery stores and 1 pharmacy which is located in the post office building in Terskol village.
The most accurate websites to check the weather forecasts for Elbrus are:
Here you can watch a great South Route Virtual Tour for the South Route.
Also here you can check a detailed Trip Itinerary for the normal climb via the South Route without skis, and here is a Ski-Touring Elbrus Ascent Itinerary, that I did in May.
Hope this information will help someone who is going to climb Elbrus in the near future! If you want to know a little bit more about me, you can always check my Instagram account (@etroguet), my Facebook, or my Twitter account.
Lots of love.