How to get there?
The easiest approach is to take the cable car system from Azau to Mir Station from where either 1 hour walk, or a 1 person chairlift takes you to Garabashi - "The Barrels". It is about 50 meter walk from the top of the chairlift.
Most tourists use hotels in the Baksan Valley as a base of acclimatization, and then go up via cables (2 transitions at Old Krugozor station, and Mir Station). The 3rd step is a small chair lift. Please note that in bad weather the chairlift section may be closed. Also the chairlift ride can be very cold, it takes 15 minutes (many people come from the valley just in shorts and Tshirts!).
If Garabashi huts are full you have to use the Diesel Hut or camp in the vinicity of the former Priut 11 refuge. Both are located above "The Barrels".
Bottom station in Azau - 2350 meters
Krugozor cable station - 2900 meters
Mir cable station - 3700 meters
Garabashi top chair lift station = Barrels Huts - 3800 meters.
Russian name for Barrels is Bochki.
For the purists, it is possible to walk up a dust trail below the cable car/chairlift line all the way from Azau to Garabashi.
Inside the Barrels
There are 9 main barrels, each sleeping 6 people. There is a mattress and pillow in each barrel, a small entry room (great for storing crampons, ice axes, trekking poles). Each hut has an electric heater, electric plugs, and an electric lights.
There are several structures around the barrels, where usually guides sleep, and 2 additional structures serve as kitchens. Hot boiled water is easily available in the kitchen. They boil it for you - you just hand them your water containers.
Toilets are in a pretty bad condition - they are named "House of Pain and House of Horror", both names well deserved. You do need to bring your own toilet paper. Showers are not available.
One night accommodation inside the barrels is 670 rubbles (as of 2010), which is about 23$.
Off season, you can just walk in, and ask for the chief, but during the high season I would recommend to make an advanced reservations.
I was told that they give priority to guided tours.
History of Priut 11
A group of climbers were cooking meal in August of 1998 in Priut 11, a mountain hut sometimes called the highest hotel in the world. Although it housed 120 visitors the hut only had a tiny cramped kitchen with one gas cooker. As a result the climbers were using their own stove. The stove started to burn, and someone poured some liquid from a nearby container on it thinking it was a water, but no - it was a fuel! Several people suffered slight injuries, one person was seriously cut after abseiling from an upper window and breaking glass. You can still see remains of this structure on the slopes on Elbrus. The main route goes by it.
Priut 11 was constructed in 1929, originally as a small hut, at an altitude of 4160 meters (the refuge of 11 - named after 11 scientists who had earlier used that site as their base). In 1932, a larger Priut was constructed on the same site. The hut accommodated 120 visitors, had an electricity, and was totally weather proof.
In 1942, the Germans were desperate for fuel, and tried to reach the oil in the Caspian Sea. A unit of the German Alpine division "Edelweiss" arrived unexpectedly at Priut 11, so the swastika was flying over there as well.
Since the demise of the Priut 11 the rubble and charred remains have been mainly cleared up and a new hut - Diesel Hut - has been built on the same site. Most people stay at the Barrels, Diesel Hut is more like an alternative - less privacy, no heating, no electricity. Camping is available in the vinicity of Diesel Hut.
Map of the area