The tallest mountain in Europe is as unique as any other of the Seven Summits, tucked away in a small ski village of Elbrus on the border of Russia and Georgia.
High seasons in the dead of winter and heart of summer attract Russian tourists and families, locals selling fur, jam, and sweets, plus a host of climbers from every corner of the world come to fulfill a huge mark off their bucket list.
When I arrived at our hotel (based at 6,880 ft / 2,100 m), a stretching 3-hour drive from the small Mineralnye Vody airport, I discovered I was the only solo climber of their 60+ guests. I quickly made friends with larger expeditions who offered me tips, shared their perspective of the mountain’s current conditions, and invited me on day hikes.
I organized this trip through Pilgrim Tours, as part of their Lite Package, and I followed their suggested 8-day acclimatization schedule – which by all means was very speedy. This schedule allowed me a full three optional summit days – which is exactly what I was looking for.
I spent my arrival day orienting myself around the villages, picking up food for day hikes, and securing rental gear for my nights on the mountain. I got my first taste of traditional Russian cuisine in our hotel’s dining room, a dish that would soon become all too familiar: mayonnaise-drenched salad, thin brothy soup, and a plate heaped with some kind of meat and potatoes.
Day 1: Acclimatization hike up Mt. Cheget (11,815 ft / 3,601 m)
The Semerka hotel was conveniently situated in Cheget village, at the base of Mt. Cheget. I fought off hard suggestions to take the chairlift up to 3,005 meters, cutting off around 600 meters and two hours of elevation gain, and instead began the hike from the base of the mountain.
I was surprised to learn that most people take the chairlift shortcut, though I understood the reasoning to spend as much time up high as possible. Groups who cut off the first half of this climb would have more time to relax and adjust to the summit height of 3,600 m.
I sped up the trail after an early breakfast and reached the top in just under three hours. The views of the Caucusus mountain range were absolutely spectacular, with Mt. Elbrus looming to my side. Clouds shifted in and out of the sun all morning, hiding and then revealing this stunning scene.I spent about a half hour up top, mostly because I wasn’t completely sure whether I had reached the true summit. Two sister peaks rise up just ahead of Cheget, making me question whether I should be scrambling down the steep rocky path to follow their lead. After some in-depth photo journalism efforts (and further cross-checking these photos with other guides and Google images), I happily determined that I had in fact made it to the summit of Mt. Cheget.
Day 2: First day on the mountain, acclimatization hike and overnight at Old Barrels (12,460 ft / 3,800 m)
This morning I took off right after breakfast and navigated my way up three separate chairlifts until I was on Elbrus proper. My first night I stayed at the Old Barrels, a hut that’s made itself infamous by outdated decor and less-than-first-world toilets.
I’m here to shatter the rumors: I LOVED the Barrel Huts! The owner was the sweetest man who spoke a handful of English words – and who made sure I felt set up and at home. I ended up actually getting an entire hut to myself, whether from my early season arrival or a lack of popularity, I’m not sure.
Here are the important details: The beds are wide, long, and seemed clean enough. There’s plenty of storage under each bed, along the walls, in cabinets, and in a mud room up front for shoes and gear. Each bed comes with a mattress, so don’t make my mistake of renting a sleeping pad. The kitchen is separated into two rooms with two sets of stoves, which (despite what I was told in the village) are absolutely open for guests to cook their own meals. Finally, and maybe most important, the toilets weren’t bad at all. Maybe Nepal numbed my sensitivity to this issue, but I was perfectly placated by the wooden room with a hole in the ground. It was absolutely, perfectly clean.
Minutes after I pack away my things I meet a group with Adventure Peaks from the UK who eagerly invite me to join their afternoon acclimatization hike. We have tea and biscuits before setting off, their leader announcing to us that earlier in the morning a man had died on the mountain of a heart attack – heavy news to digest on our first night here.
Our hike goes smoothly and I feel strong and acclimatized, despite having only spent one day above 3,000 meters and no night yet at altitude. We hike upwards for two hours and take a break, where we watch the weather turn rapidly, and sprint back just in time to narrowly avoid a violent sleet storm. I’m laying on my sleeping bag in the hut when I hear the wind howling, and suddenly the entire building is rocking back and forth to the wild gale. A member from the UK team later tells me lightning actually struck one of the electric towers above our huts, causing a huge explosion. Then, two hours later, the clouds part to reveal a glowing sunset over the horizon. Things change quickly around here.
Day 3: Acclimatization hike to Pastukhov Rocks (15,400 ft / 4,700 m), overnight at Pilgrim Tours huts (12,800 ft / 3900 m)
My Russian guide Brad had been living on the mountain for a while, shuffling clients up and down the summit, so he suggested not beginning our first day together until 10am. I spent my morning packing up from the Barrels and moving into Pilgrim Tours’ private huts, where I appreciated the nice upgrade and free meals.
Brad tells me it’ll take us 3-4 hours to reach the bottom of the Pastukhov Rocks (13,700 ft / 4,200 m), a 500 meter long landmark of Elbrus’ south face. Instead, it only takes us 2.5 hours. Our goal was the bottom of the Rocks, but feeling good and accomplishing that early, we walk to the top before calling it a day.
Back at the Pilgrim Tours huts, I’m reunited with friends from South Africa and am placed in their last remaining bunk. Their group is on an expedition with Adventures Global, headed up by its founder Ronnie Muhl. I owe a huge thanks to these guys for their generous tips, encouragement, and all-around splendid company.
Day 4: Summit day up Elbrus’ West peak (18,510 ft / 5,642 m)
I wake up before 1am to the sounds of the 18-person Danish team finishing breakfast and gathering the rest of their gear. My “breakfast,” a nervous shoveling of food into my mouth and gear onto my body, ends just before 2am when Brad and I walk out to the main snowfield to meet the snowcat.
Our snowcat is carrying four other climbers and delivers all six of us to an (ever so slightly) even ground at 5,000 meters. We must have arrived by around 2:30am, where Brad and I dart ahead of the others to begin the climb. Brad breaks trail all morning long: we are the first people on the mountain.
The slope is steep at points, especially the traverse from the main snowfield to the saddle between both West and East peaks. The fresh snow has our feet slipping often; we place our weight – and trust – in ice axes pierced into the uphill slope. Far below, we can see the sparkling lights of the huts and chairlifts.
We take a break at the saddle where two young Norwegian guys catch up with us, and we all enjoy a few sips of liquids and a bites of food before heading up the steep summit slope – just two hours from our goal.
The four of us slowly made our way up to the final summit mound, rejoicing in the early-morning solitude and the joy of having such a special spot to ourselves.
On our descent we passed dozens of groups on their way up the mountain. All had chosen to follow the path that Brad had cut hours before. His new route had skirted around a typically-used slope laden with fixed ropes; so we didn’t even use our harnesses at all.
In the end, we arrived back at the huts by 9:30 in the morning – just 7 hours after we’d begun our walk in the early hours of the morning. The hellos, hugs, and second and third breakfasts all blended together before I made my way back to the village for a well deserved shower and assessment of sunburn damage.
All in all it was a great trip and I owe a huge amount of my success to the perfect break in weather – teams just before and after our summit day weren’t so lucky. I’m so grateful to be able to walk away from Russia with another one of the world’s highest peaks reached, and one more of the Seven Summits checked off my list.