Mount Elbrus is not the biggest climbing challenge of the Seven Summits, but it is the highest mountain in Europe; a long strenuous but not a technically difficult adventure, ascending up comparatively gentle slopes it stands at 5643 metres.
Name: Mount Elbrus
Other names: Gora Elbrus (Russian), Alborz (Modern Persian), Mingi-Tau (local Balkar people), Yalbuz (Turkic), Oshkhamakhua (Circassian) and Sobilus (Latin)
Height: 5643m (18,514ft)
Location: In Mineralinye Vody, south-west Russia close to the Georgian border. Part of the Caucasus Mountain range.
First Climbed: West Peak – July 1874 by five climbers including three Brits, a Swiss and a local Balkar guide. East Peak – 10 July 1829 by Khillar Khachirov.
Climb Time: 9-15 hours from Barrel Hut (3900m, 12,795ft), plus a few days of acclimatisation.
Best Season to Climb: May - September
Introduction to Mt Elbrus.
The highest mountain in Europe, Mount Elbrus is one of the Seven Summits. In fact, it’s actually a dormant volcano. Its twin peaks are both craters, now calm and packed full of ice and snow. But by its last eruption, almost 2000years ago, it had thrown volcanic debris over an extraordinary distance, covering an area of 260sq km.
With unpredictable weather, plummeting temperatures, and bureaucratic difficulties in simply getting access to this mountain adventure, it’s easy to see that Mount Elbrus offers up a variety of worthwhile challenges to the intrepid adventurer!
History of Mount Elbrus.
Mount Elbrus is a mountain with many names and features in one particularly well-known myth.
The oldest known name comes from an Ancient Persian / Iranian myth. In it, there is a mountain, Harā Bərəzaitī, from which the Modern Persian name Alborz is derived. The name translates as ‘High Sentinel or Guard’. Elbrus is a corruption of Alborz, which is also the name of a long mountain range in northern Iran. The Balkars, the people local to Mount Elbrus, call it Mingi-Tau which means ‘a thousand mountains’. As so often, these local people have supported Western adventures up the mountain since the first ascents nearly 150 years ago.
The local Turkic people of the Caucasus range call the area Yalbuz, meaning ‘Ice Mane’. This comes from local mythology, which speaks of paranormal creatures gathering on the ‘bald mountains’. Finally, the Northwest Caucasian ethnic group, the Circassians, call Mount Elbrus Oshkhamakhua meaning ‘Mountain of Happiness’.
But Mount Elbrus is perhaps best known through Greek mythology. Prometheus, the archetypal trickster and champion against oppression, had stolen fire from Zeus to give to mankind. Zeus tied him to Mount Elbrus as punishment and sent a long-winged eagle to eat his liver, but Herekles, the great bastion of masculinity, freed him and killed the eagle.
It also featured as a place of modern mythology, with a famous story from the mountain’s slopes during World War II.
In 1942, attempting to gain a foothold in Russia, German troops commandeered ‘Priut 11’, the mountain hut at 4157m (now Diesel Hut). The Edelweiss division eventually took all the passes through the range and it seemed a great strategic success. A small group of German soldiers even adventured up Mount Elbrus to plant a flag symbolically at its summit.
However, as any amateur historian knows, Germany’s challenge for Russia did not end well. By early 1943, Russia’s forces had forced the Edelweiss division back out of the mountains and reclaimed ‘Priut 11’. One pilot even won a medal of honour for bombing the German fuel supply but leaving the mountain hut intact! The Swastika was promptly removed from the summit and replaced with a bust of Lenin.
Geography of Mount Elbrus.
Over 800m taller than the giant of the Alps, Mont Blanc (4809m, 15,778ft), Mount Elbrus sits at the pinnacle of a mountain range containing the six highest peaks in Europe.
The Caucasus Mountains stretch from the Caspian Sea (east) to the Black Sea (west), lining both sides of the Russia / Georgia border. With the Ural Mountains, the Caucasus range is considered to be the historical boundary between Europe and Asia.
The Caucasus Mountains are over two and a half million years old, formed by the Arabian plate colliding and moving north along the Eurasian plate. The tallest of ranges, the Himalayas, formed by a similar collision between the Eurasian and Indian plates some 4000km to the South-east, offering a connection between these ranges on a tectonic level at least.
While far from the highest mountain on Earth, (it fails to challenge for even the top 100 when ranked by height alone), Mount Elbrus is considered to have the tenth highest prominence – the minimum distance you have to descend before you start climbing towards another summit – at 4741m (15,554ft).
Mount Elbrus has two summits: the older Western peak standing higher at 5643m (18,313ft) and the younger Eastern peak at 5621m (18,442ft). Between the two is a saddle that dips a couple of hundred metres to 5416m (17,769ft).
Its pair of summits gives rise to one of its names: the Latin Sobilus meaning ‘pine cone’, derived from strobilos – ‘a twisted object’. Looking at a picture of the mountain, it certainly seems the two peaks are entwining, even embracing, one another.
Unlike mountains that are formed entirely through the collision of plates thrusting rock high into the skies, (such as is the case in the Pyrenees), volcanic mountains tend to appear as curved domes.
Perhaps making them appear less dominating, the curved sides of Mount Elbrus are only an illusion of safety. After all, these gently slopes are the result of the violent pyroclastic flows – rivers of lava that fly out of the crater during an eruption.
Like Mount Fuji, Kilimanjaro and 60% of all volcanoes on Earth, Mount Elbrus is a stratovolcano. These ‘mountains’ are formed over time through the combination of repeated eruptions and the push of the plates driving rock up. The slopes consist of long-since cooled lava and mud flows as well as other debris.
They are also some of the most dangerous volcanoes, capable of erupting with little warning and with devastating consequences.
When not erupting, Mount Elbrus hosts 23 glaciers. They cover an enormous area, 134sq km, and make up 10% of all glaciers in the Northern Caucasus mountains. While this is an irrefutably huge area of slow-moving ice, the glaciers on this mountain are actually in retreat.
As with so many glaciers around the world, and whether part of natural cycles or the result of global warming, the glaciers of Mount Elbrus have seen a significant 18% reduction in size over the last century.
Most of Mount Elbrus’ glaciers are relatively short (6-9km in length) and travel on average only 25cm/ day, (compare these to long and speedy glaciers of the Southern Alps). The fastest moving is the Kukurtlu glacier, recorded at only 140cm/day. This equates to a journey of up to 200years from peak to floor for a patient water droplet landing at the top! These mountain glaciers feed three major rivers: the Baksan, Malka and Kuban. The Kuban is by far the longest of them, winding almost 900km north and west to flow into the Azov Sea.
Wildlife of Mount Elbrus.
Typical of alpine ecosystems, Mount Elbrus is a mixture of coniferous forests, grasslands and alpine meadows along with a rich mixture of birds, mammals and other animals. There are 700 species of vertebrate animals (around 70 are endemic) and 12,000 species of plants, (over 1,000 found only in this region).
The surrounding valleys contain a rich and varied biodiversity, as the Caucasus mountains are the meeting point of three biogeographical provinces: Central / Northern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East/ North Africa.
Some of the notable animals, you might spot during an adventure here are:
- East or West caucasian tur, with its huge curved horns,
- One of the largest of all deer species, the caucasian red deer,
- The small Syrian brown bear, which is hunted legally in nearby Azerbaijan,
- Gray/ Eurasian wolf, which lives in many mountainous regions throughout Asia and Europe,
- Caucasian leopard, now critically endangered with only 1300 left in the wild.
Soaring overhead, you might also be fortunate to spot other endangered predators such as the golden eagle or bearded vulture. In the alpine fields you may see the ground-nesting caucasian black grouse or caucasian snow cock. More commonly seen on the mountain are the small ‘great’ rose finch, and the brilliantly named whooper swan!
Unfortunately, the wildlife in the region, particularly that found in the native forests, are threatened by unsustainable logging, urban expansion and poor management of what remains. So see it while you can!
The First Ascents of Mount Elbrus.
There have been three notable first ascents of Mount Elbrus. The first to the Eastern summit, the second to the higher Western summit and the third, is still the highest such ascent in the world – for a vehicle!
Western Summit. July 1874 by a group of five individuals, led by Brit Florence Crauford Grove.
The other men were: local guide Balkarian Akhia Sottaiev, Englishmen Frederick Gardner and Horace Walker and Swiss Climber Peter Knubel. Six years before, Grove and Sottaiev had attempted the mountain ascent but had come up short.
Eastern Summit. 10 July 1829 by a local Russian Killar Khashirov, a Kabardin man.
Khashirov was part of a Russian army scientific expedition. In the same year Akia Sottaiev, also reached the Eastern summit. Some 45 years later he was the guide in the first successful summit of the Western summit (above) and so became first person to ascend both mountain summits, aged 86 years old.
Vehicle Ascent! 13 September 1997 by a Land Rover.
In 1997, Alexander Abramov drove a Land Rover to the western summit with a team of ten men. This adventure took 43 days and included the use of winches and chains to pull the vehicle to the summit!
Alas, the Land Rover never made it down – it fell during the descent and can still be seen today on the mountain ledge where it came to rest.
Mt Elbrus Climbing guide.
Though technically not the most challenging mountain you could face, Mount Elbrus is not one to underestimate. An average of 30 climbers each year die on Mount Elbrus and in 2004 that number reached 48.
Many deaths are caused by a sudden change in weather leading to the disorientation of the climber who falls prey to one of the many hidden crevasses just off the main route.
It is advised to climb during the months of July and August. While the busiest time, the temperatures are more bearable, (though still falling to -8celsius at night), and sudden storms are less likely.
Following well-trodden routes is the safest way to avoid potential dangers, though preparation is also very important. With altitude sickness common, at least a week should be spent acclimatising on the mountain at heights of 2500-4500m before attempting the climb. Cheget Peak (3601m, 11,814ft) is often used for this purpose, as well as offering good views of the Standard Route that many choose to follow.
Given the potentially arduous red tape, (Russia is still renowned for very slow and difficult visa processing), language barriers and limited domestic travel options, most Western adventurers would be advised to go with a Russian adventure company. They can support you in getting all the right documentation in place.
Two companies that regularly feature in mountaineers forums are Pilgrim Tours and Geographic Bureau, though there are plenty of others who offer a professional service.
Standard Route / South Face:
The most popular, so also the most populated, route for this adventure. Some days can see one hundred or more climbers navigating this ascent. As a result, be sure to book all your accommodation, travel and any equipment hire well in advance.
The route is well marked by wands. Given its popularity, you are likely to also be climbing in view of others, assuming there is good visibility.
The Standard Route route uses the system of cable cars that run from Azau (2350m, 7710ft) to 3658m (12,001ft), just short of the Barrel Huts, from where most ascents begin.
From Barrel Huts (3900m, 12,795ft) the route climbs to Diesel Hut (4157m, 13,638ft) then onto Pashtukova Rocks (4670m, 15,322ft). From here, the route climbs to the saddle between the mountain’s two summits, then on to the Western Summit (5643m, 18,514ft). The elevation change on this ascent is 1743m (5719ft).
Typically, climbers would begin this challenge around 2am, to be sure of reaching the summit by 11am and returning before nightfall. The recommended times are 6-9hours up, 3-6hours down.
There are few, if any, crevasses to be concerned about, so long as you remain on the defined route. Any detours are very dangerous so strongly advised against. During bad weather this becomes a real problem as poor visibility less to people getting lost. This is by far the biggest danger of this adventure and a reason to watch the weather carefully.
Unfortunately, Mount Elbrus’ Standard route is renowned for being dirty, as climbers in the past have clearly failed to follow the carry in/ carry out rule. The huts en route are also primitive but serve their purpose, though the toilets are well known for being terrible. Diesel Hut’s predecessor, Priut 11, was actually ranked the ‘nastiest outhouse in the world’ by Outside magazine in 1991, some seven years before it burnt down.
East Route via Achkoriakol Lava Flow:
A longer and quieter route begins in Elbrus town. Following the Irikchat Gorge to the Irikchat Pass and edge of Elbrus glacial shield. From here you head up the Irikchat Valley, acclimatising to the increasing altitutde by climbng the surrounding smaller peaks (such as Mount Irikchat (4020m, 13,189ft) over the course of a week.
From here the route heads straight up the lava flow and on to the eastern peak across steep, snowy slopes and bands of rock near the top. This brings you the eastern summit of Mount Elbrus.
For this challenge, and the North Route below, you will need to be wholly self-sufficient as there are no huts en route. The descent can be a retracing of steps or you can head down the Standard Route.
A more difficult challenge, requiring sections of climbing with ropes. It begins on the Ullukol glacier, with base camp at 2500m (8202ft) and high camp at 3800m 12,467ft). It is a popular route for Alpinists wanting to ski back down. The least populous of the Mount Elbrus routes, this would be one worth pursuing if it’s an adventure with solitude that you’re after.
Trekking in the Mount Elbrus Area.
Surrounding Mount Elbrus are a number of valleys and smaller peaks that are worth exploring. There are villages dotted throughout this region, (actually a republic of Russia), Kabardino-Balkaria.
The Baksan valley is a picturesque place to visit and also where the Standard Route begins. It contains a large number of villages, (by rural Russian standards at least). A valley to see alpine meadows, pine forests and the Baksan river – one of Mount Elbrus’ largest.
The Dongusorun valley contains the pristine Dongusorun mountain lake. Reached from Cheget by chairlifts that continue up to 3050m (10,007ft), this adventure offers fine views of Elbrus and the surrounding valleys. The Dongusorun Pass also leads over to Georgia, for anyone looking for a longer hike!
To the South-East of Mount Elbrus and across the Baksan valley are a range of smaller peaks, all around 4000m (13,123ft). Information is less widely available about the accessibility of these less famous peaks. Given that the Caucasus mountains have been used for centuries by local herders there is a good change that there are clear passes to follow.
A good resource for known walks in the area can be found here, listing trekking options departing from the village of Verhny Baksan at the eastern end of Baksan valley.