Mount Elbrus is a dormant volcano located in the western Caucasus mountain range, in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay–Cherkessia, the Russian Federation, near the border with Georgia. Mt. Elbrus's peak is the highest in the Caucasus. Elbrus has two summits both of which are dominant volcanic domes. Mt. Elbrus (west summit) stands at 5,642m (18,510ft) and the east summit is slightly lower at 5,621m (18,442ft).

 

7 Summit Number: Two
Location: Western Caucasus, Russia
Altitude: 5,642m / 18,510ft
Date Summited: June 9th, 2001
Guiding Company: Pilgrim Tours
Climbing Partners: Jose Rionda

Elbrus Summit

Elbrus Summit Team Photo

Itinerary

Sunday 3rd June
Left Leicester at 7.15am for London Heathrow airport. I thought the flight was at 11.55am but discovered en route that it was 10.55am - good job we left plenty of time to get to the airport. Said goodbye to Rachel, tears and everything. It would have been great for her to come also as she would have loved it.

Flight was on time and I arrived in Moscow's Sheremtevyo airport at 5.40pm local time.Pilgrim tours representative was there to meet me as planned, although this was the bit I was slightly concerned about as all the booking was done over email. We had to wait for about an hour for another flight to arrive with another member of the group. This is when I met Tom from Santa Barbara - the 3D filming guru. It took us about an hour to reach hotel Rossia overlooking Red Square, the Kremlin and St. Basils Cathedral. The hotel was a large, and fairly basic establishment, with about 8 floors and a small reception on each floor. Seemed to be the type of place that suited Moscow.

I was introduced to Bill, Holly and Bob, who were Tom's climbing friends from different parts of the US - a good bunch of people who were very friendly. The 5 of us went out for an evening meal after taking some photos of the sights around the hotel – Red Square, St. Basils Cathedral, along with other historic buildings. Dinner was at a restaurant called the Red Square and was very nice, with excellent food – I had Zander fish, something I'd never tried before but was extremely tasty. Later on in the evening another 2 climbers arrived from the US, Brendan, who is a 17 year old student and Bob, another friend of Tom and the others.

Eventually got to bed at midnight after sorting out all the gear ready for the mornings 5.30am alarm call. Sometime during the night the phone went, which we were warned about as girls are always offering services to hotel guests – this is probably due to prostitution being legal !! The Pilgrim tours rep, Natasha was very helpful, and everything seemed to be going very well. Can't wait to get out to the Caucasus Mountains.

Monday 4th June
I awoke at 5.30am, had a quick shower and went down to collect the breakfast bag from reception. It was far too early for the restaurant to open and this food was to last us until dinner. In reception we met the final members of the team – Jose, who had major problems getting from the US to Moscow due to delays, and 2 East Germans who spoke little English. Jose had only hand luggage as his main baggage was lost somewhere in Germany when he had to divert there, which was a worrying thing to have happen.

We departed for Moscow airport at 6am, and arrived at 7am for a 3hr delay to the flight. The departure time was now 11.30am – only 4 hours to wait !! Time seemed to go by quickly as we all chatted about previous trips, amongst other things. The Russian Aeroflot aircraft looked better than I thought it would, even though it wasn't quite a Boeing or Airbus. It took off well with a nice 2 hour flight and smooth touchdown in Mineralnye Vody, which was a crappy little airport and our introduction to the Russia outside of Moscow. It was here we met our guide, Victor, who was to hopefully take us to the summit of Elbrus. He spoke limited English but was accompanied by an English speaking assistant.

Mineralnye Vody was a warm 24'C and particularly dusty, with quite a few local women begging for money. We now had a 4 hour drive to a small village in the Caucasus called Azau, which was situated at the end of a road in the heart of the skiing area. The journey was in a well used bus but it did the trick and got us to our destination. We traveled with a group of Dutch skiers who planned to do some skiing and also to summit Elbrus, who were under the guidance of Pilgrim tours. A nice perk along the way was when the guide distributed a liter of beer to everyone, albeit warm, but well deserved.

We eventually arrived in Azau at 7pm. It seemed deserted, with a gondola and some multi-colored cabins dotted around. Home for the next few nights was a lodge, a 2 story wooden building which would house the 10 of our team, the 7 Dutch skiers and the guides. After settling in we had dinner which consisted of boursch (soup), meat, potatoes, bread and vodka, purely for toasting!!

We discovered that this lodge was to be our base for the next 3 nights, which will enable us to shower and have decent meals. I didn't expect that and thought we would get 1 shower at the start of the trip and another at the end, and be eating noodles for days on end. Got to bed at 10.30pm in preparation for an early morning and our first day of acclimatization.

Tuesday 5th June
Woke at 7.30am after an excellent nights sleep. Showered and had breakfast, which was getting better – porridge, followed by hotdogs and some strange rice like stuff. We got kitted up and left at 9am.

We started with a ¾ hour walk towards Terskol which took us through pine forest, and a fair few vodka and beer bottles !! We arrived at the ski-lift, a multi-colored old looking contraption which was to take us up to just under 3000m, and this was started especially for us as there was no longer any skiers around this area. I already new that it was fairly high as the air was noticeably thinner at the top of the lifts, and I felt slightly light-headed. We then started on our first acclimatization walk to prepare us for the long hike up to Elbrus summit. This took us over rocky areas and through snow up to our knees in places up to a summit called “Azau-Gitche-Cheget-Karabashi” at an altitude of 3461m. We ate lunch at the summit, which was prepared for us at the lodge (consisting of an orange, cake, small sandwich, and a gherkin !), took a few photos and headed back down to the ski-lifts in an afternoon thunderstorm and hailstones.

Once back down at the bottom of the ski-lifts we unexpectedly went for a couple of beers, kebab, a type of naan bread, and salad at a local café bar. Very good. Instead of the walk back to Azau lodge we took a minibus and got back about 4.30pm, ready for a nice cold shower and dinner at 6ish. This was again home-made soup, pork, mashed potatoes, and salad, with strawberries, tea and vodka!!

After dinner we sat down to watch some Russian videos on the Priut 11 hut fire, and a group of Russians driving a Land Rover to the summit of Elbrus. An early night in bed at 10pm, as in the morning we are going up to the ruin of the Priut 11 hut.

We heard from the guides this evening that a group of Germans being guided by Pilgrim tours failed to summit today due to one of the group suffering from altitude sickness.

Wednesday 6th June
Up at 8.30am, after waking up at 3am – just couldn't sleep last night for a while. Breakfast was the usual porridge, followed by pasta and chicken. We left at 10am in the gondola right outside our lodge, which would take us the first part of the journey up to Priut 11 hut. This took us up to 3000m, then a 2nd gondola took us up to Mir station at 3470m, and from there we took a ski-lift up to Garabashi and the Barrels huts at 3700m.

The morning was very cloudy all the way up to the Barrels huts and it looked as if the lifts just disappeared into nowhere. Once at the Barrels huts we had lunch and then prepared for the acclimatization up to Priut 11 at 4157m. We did the walk in a whiteout, almost all the way - there was wind, blowing snow, and very low cloud, but it was very adventurous.

Priut 11 was destroyed by fire in 1999 and there is now a new mountain location being built. It can be slept in but it isn't very secure, although it gives a smaller climb to the summit as you are starting at over 4000m.

The descent was in similar conditions but much faster. I felt similar to Tuesday, light headed, but not as bad. We got back to the lower gondola, and watched Tom and Bob snowboard / ski down, and Tom fall off !! Eventually getting back to the lodge at 4pm Jose, Bob and myself sat and drank about 5 pints of beer, which isn't good for the acclimatization process. A decent meal, good chat, and cards made for an enjoyable evening.

Tomorrow we pack up and take all our gear up on the gondolas to the Barrels huts, where we will sleep for the next 3 or 4 nights whilst summiting Elbrus. Today was bad weather our guide, Victor told us – hopefully it won't last. Jose was happy this evening as all his luggage finally arrived.

Thursday 7th June
Up at 7.30am with a bit of as hangover, even after drinking pint after pint of water and taking Paracetamol just in case – shouldn't have drunk that 5 pints of lager last night. Kept on drinking water whilst preparing all gear for taking up to the Barrels huts. This would be fun as I had to get a 70 liter rucksack with a daypack attached to it, along with me onto a single ski-lift for the final part of the journey up to the Barrels.

We planned to leave after breakfast, which consisted of a boiled egg with meat and something, although a poorly gondola temporarily put paid to that. We eventually left and upon arriving at Mir Station it looked as if there had been a snowstorm, as there were ski-lift operators digging the lifts out ready for us and the many skiers, so as we could all get up to the Barrels Huts.

Once at the Barrels Huts we ate lunch and at 3pm departed for a good acclimatization walk up to Pastukhova Rocks at 4690m. On the way up the sky turned a beautiful blue and Elbrus showed itself to us, both summits looked easily climbable in a couple of hours – very deceiving. It became very warm and we were walking in base layers at over 4000m, although as we got higher it cooled down, and the wind started. As we had left it quite late we turned round just short of the rocks at 4600m and headed back down, and I was very glad we did as I felt lousy, with nausea, sickness, and a bad headache.

I got back down and just wanted to lie down and sleep, after wanting to be sick all the way. It was about 7.15pm and dinner was served at 7.30pm. I couldn't face any food, but tried anyway – I sat at the table staring at the noodles and trying to force tea down my throat. Managed to down one mug, but had to take the noodles and another drink back to our Barrel Hut, whereupon I fell to sleep. When I awoke it was all cold, but I managed to eat and drink it anyway, and felt much better for it. Felt so good now I spent the next 2 hours chatting with a couple of Swedish guys about their previous conquests, including one of them climbing Mount Vinson with Dave Hahn and Conrad Anker, two top American mountaineers. Just before going to bed at 10.45pm I spent some time looking at the surrounding mountains – it was a very clear night and all the peaks could be seen, with many stars and a full moon.

Tomorrow we have an easy day, probably going up as far as Priut 11 again and resting in preparation for our summit bid later on in the evening. I was extremely worried today that I might not make the summit, but since resting for a while and making a full recovery I am more confident. Tucked up now in my Mountain Equipment –25'C sleeping bag oblivious to the weather outside. Roll on tomorrow…..

Friday 8th June
I awoke at 12.30am when nature called, and took the walk through the camp to the remote wooden cabin called the toilet – what a stench !! You just do your business on top of the previous persons, and add to the termite hill. I woke again at 5.30am and then 6.30am giving me a tired look after a poor nights sleep, but still felt quite good. It was a beautiful morning and hopefully would stay like this until the next day.

Breakfast consisted of two bowls of porridge with fruit. At 11am we again went on a short walk for the final preparation for summit night. This took us up to Priut 11 hut at 4157m where we spent about an hour, and returned to the Barrels huts for lunch, and finally dinner at 7pm.

That evening Bob and I played cards with a new Russian friend – it was a new Russian game called “The Fool”, and I don't think we ever fully grasped how to play it, but it was fun and ate up the final hours before our early morning call. During the evening we also had to pack our summit clothing, as well as ice axe, crampons, harness and water.

Victor was in two minds as to whether we would actually depart as the weather had showed signs of being unstable throughout the day, and it was reportedly very windy above Pastukhova Rocks and as you get up higher towards the summit. We had even been told that the way the clouds were looking possibly meant that there was a storm looming !! I thought the weather looked clear enough but we were still preparing for wind and cold. We'll see….

Await the morning.

Saturday 9th June
Didn't get much sleep, probably about two hours when the alarm went off at 1.50am. After crawling out of bed we hurriedly ate two packets of porridge with tea, and then finished packing for the long trek up to the West summit of Elbrus.

I decided to wear the following:

BOTTOM:

  • Subzero factor 1 baselayer
  • Subzero factor 2 midlayer
  • Trekking trousers
  • Mountain Equipment Goretex waterproof pants

TOP:

  • Subzero factor 1 baselayer
  • Paramo fleece midlayer
  • Mountain Equipment Goretex jacket

MISC:

  • North Cape hat
  • North Face Windstopper gloves
  • Bandana

We left at 3.15am from the Barrels huts with no one else around. Everywhere was extremely quiet, with no wind and an almost clear sky when we started walking up towards Priut 11 hut for the first leg of the climb. We were all walking single file in the night sky and it felt very relaxing, as if you were in your own private world.

As daybreak started appearing at around 5.30am we neared Pastukhova Rocks and a beautiful red sunrise with the shadow on the horizon of a surrounding peak. At Pastukhova Rocks there was a group of Russian climbers preparing a handicapped mountaineer who had no use of his legs for a forthcoming attempt on Denali in Alaska. They were using a device where he could turn handles to propel himself up the mountainside on ropes lay by the other team members.

Just above the Rocks it became extremely icy underfoot and this meant we stopped to put on crampons and get our ice axes for use. At one steep icy part we clipped into a rope for 20 meters that the guides had prepared using ice screws.

From here on up to the summit the ice became fairly hard work and this was the first time I had used crampons since doing a winter mountaineering course in Scotland. It was completely light now and the summit could be clearly seen. At this stage we lost one of the German climbers due to cold feet, probably from ill fitting plastic boots which he had to borrow from Pilgrim Tours. I also felt like I might have to turn around at some stage soon as I was feeling nauseas, and really didn't feel like I could continue much further.

The next section was a slow plod up a steep icy slope which led up to the saddle between the East and West summits of Elbrus. This was a very long walk which never seemed to end, and at this point we were told it was about 8 hours from here to the summit!! I felt so rough, not from tiredness but from the thin air and altitude. Still managed to get some good photo opportunities along the route, along with a Russian photographer who was snapping at us all the way up to the summit.

It got to about midday when we rounded a bend and found ourselves on the flat piece of land between the two peaks known as the saddle. It was a long walk to this point, and still about 2 hours further on to the summit plateau up a steep icy slope. First we stopped for a break to refill ourselves with liquid and food, although I just sat down and wanted to quit. On Kilimanjaro the year prior at a greater altitude I didn't feel anywhere near as bad as I did at that moment. I wasn't the only one who didn't want to go on any further, as there were lots of moans and groans about going any further – I think only young Brendan was eager to get on with things before the weather changed.

Before leaving Victor decided that it wouldn't be a good idea for the second German climber to continue as his crampons were for leather boots and kept falling off his rented plastic boots. This could have had dire consequences on the steep slope to follow so he was forced to stay back and wait for us to return. Luckily there were two tents at this location which were there for the Russian climbers who were helping the handicapped mountaineer, so he was able to stay in one of those temporarily. We eventually set off, somewhat reluctantly, in our usual single file but slower than earlier – the thin air was getting to us all, however we didn't seem to take too long to reach the summit plateau.

Everyone dropped their daypacks here and I for one suddenly got a new lease of life. The walk across the plateau took only about 20 minutes before the true summit of Europe came into view at an altitude of 5,642 metres / 18,498 feet. I stood on top with Brendan and the guides whilst the rest of the team joined us. We stayed up there for about ½ an hour taking many photographs and congratulating each other. It is amazing how you can feel much better at the highest altitude of the day than at any other moment of the ascent – it must be the sheer thrill of being there and the adrenaline of the achievement.

Now begins the long walk down, after 11 hours of ascent with many stops. I didn't really want to walk down and would have preferred to climb into my down sleeping bag and go to sleep for hours instead. After leaving the summit plateau we clipped into a rope as a precaution for a particularly steep and icy section leading back towards the Saddle, and then again above Pastukhova Rocks.

I had made a big mistake earlier in the day and put my crampons on the wrong feet – hopefully it was just tiredness. This caused me to get the buckles caught together whilst walking down from the Saddle, sending me down the snow covered hillside. Luckily I did as I had been taught and used the ice axe arrest technique to prevent myself from going any further, although Victor had dived down the hillside to stop me also. This caused my heart rate to increase quite a lot!!

Other than this the only other event on the descent was the pure whiteout we encountered after passing Pastukhova Rocks. We eventually returned to the Barrels at 7.30pm, some 16 3/4 hours after leaving. Totally exhausted but very pleased with the accomplishment, and the fact that however much I wanted to quit and turn back I kept on going.

After tea I crashed out at about 9 and slept like a log.

Sunday 10th June
Had a great night sleep, waking at 8am to a beautiful day with no wind and a clear blue sky. Had to start getting all the gear together ready for the ski-lift departure at 11.15am. This was to be our final few hours at the Barrels huts, and strangely enough I quite like the place !! There were a lot of skiers and tourists about today which made for a pretty site, brightly dressed, and looking very Russian. Higher up on the mountain were the Dutch team going up to the Priut 11 hut prior to their summit attempt.

I managed to eat a large breakfast to compensate for the lack of food in the previous 24 hours, and then gathered all the gear for the short journey back down to the lodge. There was me and 2 heavy packs strapped together clambering onto the ski-lift, which was entertaining just trying to stay on.

All we wanted now was a good shower and a few beers, and this is just what most of us got upon arriving back at the lodge. As it was a weekend there were lots of local folk around the ski lodges, some knitting sweaters, hats, gloves, and other warm Caucasan clothing, and others cooking on the many barbecues. There were lamb kebabs, chicken kebabs, salad and loads of beer available. The food was alright, except for the fat (which was probably needed after the strenuous time of being on the mountain). The knitted items were excellent value for money, ranging from $7 up to $10.

We spent from 1pm up until 11pm drinking, eating (including an evening meal in the lodge), and relaxing. I didn't manage to get showered until the next morning, and had to endure another smelly night in the lodge.

Monday 11th June
First things first, and a well needed shower was had before breakfast, and I felt great for it.

Today we could have been descending from Elbrus if it was necessary for us to use our spare summit day, but as this wasn't needed Victor planned for us to go out for the day. We left at 9.30 in a minibus and headed out past Terskol to a picturesque valley in the mountains, where we walked through a small village and on into a valley with beautiful snow capped peaks and green pastures with grazing cows and horses. This eventually took us to the beginning of a glacier at the foot of some mountains where we had lunch and took some photographs on a rickety bridge over a small mountain river.

After getting back to the minibus we went on to a place where natural mineral springs emerge from underground. The water tasted fizzy, similar to what you can buy from the shops, albeit with an iron ore tint to it.

Once we got back to Azau lodge we had another afternoon of kebabs, beer, vodka, and celebration. Today was Victors birthday and the evening consisted of a well cooked meal and some cheap Russian champagne to mark the occasion. This was followed by the obligatory birthday cake.

The next morning was to see our departure from Mineralnye Vody to the airport at an early 5.30am so bed came fairly swiftly tonight.

Tuesday 12th June
A good nights sleep was had, followed by the remainder of the packing, breakfast, and the departure for the 4 hour drive back to the airport. This was a bit of a solemn morning as we were leaving the mountains behind and heading off back to the capital city, Moscow.

At Mineralnye Vody airport we all had a hard time with the airport officials for being over the weight limit on baggage, although after paying substantial Rubles, partly bribery and partly legitimately we were allowed to board the plane back to Moscow. Again, this was a good 2 hour flight back to the domestic airport in Moscow.

At the airport we were met by a Pilgrim Tours representative who took us back to Hotel Rossia where Gleb, the Pilgrim Tours Director was waiting to congratulate us.

I, for one was excited about going out for the evening in Moscow and made it straight down to the hotel bar for some liquid refreshments with Gleb and a couple of others from the tour. This was to be a celebration evening with the entire group. We started off with a few drinks around Moscow and then went on to a very nice modern restaurant, followed by unsuccessful attempts at finding late night entertainment!!

Sleep was broken tonight by the telephone ringing with many propositions of female company – in the end the phone was taken off the hook!!

Wednesday 13th June
Some of the group continued on to St Petersburg for a few days and some of us returned to the airport for our flights back to our home countries. Overall this was an excellent, highly recommended trip with a great group of fellow climbers from the USA and Germany, and some experienced Russian guides.

Full marks to Pilgrim Tours for a well organized, professional expedition – www.pilgrimtours.org


Photos