Solitude at the Summit of Europe’s Highest Peak: Mt. Elbrus (18,510 ft / 5,642 m)

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.

Cheget Village


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.

Exploring the upper valley on my arrival day

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.

Typical Russian traffic jam, en route from the airport



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.

The single-seat chairlifts up to 3,000 meters

Cheget marks the border between Russia and Georgia, hikers need to carry their passports in case approached by Georgia border police


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.

View from the summit of Cheget Peak

A second view from the summit

 

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.

Elbrus peeked out of the clouds on my descent

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.

One last view of Elbrus before retreating to Cheget Village


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.

Cable car ride up to the Barrel Huts


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. 

My hut slept six, much more comfortable than bunks

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.

View from Old Barrel #3


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.

World’s most scenic toilets


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.

Ascending our way up to Pastukhov Rocks

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.

Waving down at my bunkmates

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.

Flickering lights from 1,200 meters below

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.

The Caucasus Range over the first rays of light


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. 

Walking up from the saddle


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.

The slow slug up to the final summit

This is what it feels like to reach one of the Seven Summits!


The first person to sit atop the summit that morning!

 

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.

A beautiful kind of hard work

Looking back up at Brad’s new route

 

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.

Boundary Peak via Queen Mine; Highpoint of Nevada

Nina and I met in June while climbing Mt. Baker and immediately bonded over this shared ambition to explore the highest peaks of the west coast. Just a month after exchanging contact information we put together a plan to meet halfway between San Francisco and Orange County to hike up the tallest mountain in Nevada, Boundary Peak (13,140′).

And actually, two days before we were meeting, we decided to tack White Mountain Peak (14,252′) onto our travel plans for a 13er and 14er two-fer weekend.

Let’s talk about getting there. You’ll find the beginning of a gravel road 9 miles east of Benton off of Highway 6, on your right (south) side of the road, just across from an abandoned ranch (see Summitpost for more detailed directions). I realize now that many of the sites I was using as a reference were as many as a dozen years old, and the 6.2 mile gravel road between Highway 6 and Queen Mine has severely deteriorated since then. I drive a 4WD Jeep Liberty Sports Edition, and sincerely doubted my car’s ability to get through the ruts and deep gouges that tore up this washed-out road. Maybe the conditions have worsened in just the last two years – a trip report I read from 2013 said this road was “easy peasy” in a 4×4 pickup.

In comparison, the following day we drove up the arduous 17-mile White Mountain Peak gravel path, which is labeled as a 4WD-only road by the National Forest Service, and we found this much more passable than the Queen Mine route. Either way, we were happy to get out of the car to start our climb.

We left my car at Queen Mine proper, an obviously large flat area next to a couple of open mine shafts. There was about 700 vertical feet, 1 mile, of road walking until we reached the trailhead register at Kennedy Point and our real hike began.

The Queen Mine trailhead register.

The Queen Mine trailhead register.

This first part of the hike was steep, and I could feel the altitude at 10,000 ft. sucking at my lungs. It didn’t take too long to ascend this first ridge, which flattens out after just a thousand feet into a nice sloping meadow where you can see wild horses, deer, and marmots. The Trail Canyon saddle slopes down to the left of this ridge and is unofficially “marked” with a pile of rocks and logs that created a perfect morning break spot to fuel up and hydrate before tackling the peak.

Here’s an overall breakdown of our timing:

  • 7:00am: Left Queen Mine trailhead
  • 8:30am: Took a break at the Trail Canyon saddle
  • 10:15am: Reached the summit of Boundary Peak
  • 11:00am: Departed the summit
  • 12:30pm: Took a second break at the Trail Canyon saddle
  • 1:45pm: Arrived back at the car
Our first views of Boundary Peak, a little less than a thousand feet above the trailhead... with wild horses!

Our first views of Boundary Peak, a little less than a thousand feet above the trailhead… with wild horses!

These first views were quite intimidating, but it was really only from this point that we could see the entire mountain. As soon as we descended to the Trail Canyon saddle, we could only see that first false-summit on the right. In fact, we’d forgotten about this image and believed that we were walking up to this first (much shorter) peak, to the actual summit.

Finally heading up the actual peak.

Finally heading up Boundary Peak.

You can see what we thought was the true summit here, when we really had an extra 1.5 hours and near a thousand vertical feet to gain still. The trail was reasonably sloped, covered in rocks and scree. It might’ve taken us just as much time to go up as it did to return since we were constantly slipping on the unstable conditions.

Looking down at Trail Canyon saddle. Farther to the right you can see the slightly uphill path that leads to Queen Mine.

Looking down at Trail Canyon saddle. Farther to the right you can see the slightly uphill path that leads to Queen Mine.

Our favorite view of Boundary Peak.

Our favorite view of Boundary Peak.

This was the “ah-hah” moment where we realized we were very, very miscalculated in our summit estimating. Overall, the trail was well-defined, and we never had too much of a problem finding the path once we’d wandered off. There were parts we chose to follow rock paths and bouldered up to avoid unnecessary elevation gain or loss, but the ridge was relatively easy to follow.

Looking across Nevada at the summit.

Looking across Nevada at the summit.

Reaching the summit felt like quite the accomplishment! We could see across Nevada and over to the Sierras and Yosemite region of California. On the top, Montgomery Peak (13,442′) loomed back at us from California. We speculated where the state border actually laid, and contemplated a second summit, but couldn’t spot a good trail and noted that the final 800 or so feet looked a little too sketchy.

Summit of Boundary Peak.

Summit of Boundary Peak, looking across to Montgomery Peak, a few hundred feet higher.

Looking down the ridge we ascended from the summit.

Looking down the ridge we ascended from the summit.

Returning down the way we came, we used the ridge above as a natural handrail and made our own path until we met with the Trail Canyon saddle again. We had run into 3 other groups during the day, and all 3 had also come from Queen Mine. Notably – we were also the only women we saw on the mountain that day (girl power!)

Returning through the meadow until dipping down to the left to Queen Mine.

Returning through the meadow until dipping down to the left to Queen Mine.

Looking down the valley from Queen Mine.

Looking down the valley from Queen Mine.

Below you can see where we chose to park – at the entrance to the abandoned Queen Mine. You can faintly see the road continuing up the ridge on steep switchbacks that take you 700′ up to Kennedy Point and the official trailhead. I never got a shot in the morning, but there was enough room for a few cars and tents with a firepit just to the right of my Jeep. By the time we arrived back at the car in the early afternoon, it was hot. The cool breeze that had kept us company at altitude disappeared once we’d reached the valley. Since this is one of the most remote desert hikes, and there are no sources of water along the trail, I’d highly recommend bringing three liters of water.

This is my recommended parking spot, next to the Queen Mine, before the super-rugged road conditions start to the traditional trailhead.

This is my recommended parking spot, next to the Queen Mine, before the super-rugged road conditions start to the traditional trailhead.

Leaving the trailhead, we were back in Bishop by 3:00pm… With just enough time to feed our hiker hunger and get ready for our ascent of White Mountain Peak in the morning.

QUICK STATS

  • Length: 10.4 miles
  • Trailhead: 9,200 ft.
  • Summit: 13,146 ft.
  • Elevation gain: 4,000 ft.
  • Time: 6:45 total, 6:00 moving

A few resources I found really helpful before this climb…

Mt. Shuksan (9,131 ft.) Summit Climb via Sulphide Glacier

Climb the Crown Jewel of the North Cascades up to 9,131 ft. for stunning mountain views, challenging rock and ice climbing, and vertigo-inducing heights.

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Approach hike, above Shannon Ridge.

Overview: 16 miles roundtrip, 6,600 ft. elevation gain

The Sulphide Glacier is the easiest and most popular route to the summit of Mt. Shuksan, and is a great beginner’s glacier + rock climb. More experienced climbers may enjoy the Fisher Chimneys route. The route described here makes for a very long two days because of its gradual, drawn-out approach (you’ll want trekking poles for this).

I joined Mountain Gurus for this climb and can’t recommend their services enough. As part of a 4-day Intro to Mountaineering Course, we spent each day learning the fundamentals of glacier travel, crevasse rescue training, ropes and rock climbing techniques, and general mountain safety guidelines.

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You’ll begin at Shannon Ridge Trailhead, which is pretty easy to find and accessible for any type of vehicle. To get there, exit I-5 at Burlington and head east on Highway 20. Turn onto Baker Lake Road and continue 23 miles until you reach Shannon Creek Campground. Turn left on Forest Road 1152, drive just past a 4 mile marker, and take a sharp right onto Forest Road 1152-014 to the very end of the road. The parking lot is wide and flat, as is the road leading there, no need for a high-clearance vehicle.

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To begin your hike, you’ll start out on an old road trail 2.5 miles up to Shannon Ridge, which will give you awe-inspiring views of the valleys and mountains around. Follow the ridge another 2 miles over a pass to your right, and continue on until you are at the southern wing of Mt. Shuksan with the summit pyramid in sight.

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We ended up making a higher camp than we were expecting, a little above 6,000 ft., because it was a low-snow year and couldn’t find access to running water lower down. In any event, plan to camp on the snow and to melt snow for water, though you should be able to find some runoff you can boil or treat. The campsite we chose was truly an amphitheater of the North Cascades National Park, surrounded by jagged peaks from every angle.

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On summit day you’ll slog across the (seemingly) never-ending Sulphide Glacier to the base of the rock pyramid, along the way passing the intersection of Fisher Chimneys on your left. You’ll want to be roped up to your team along the glacier as there are crevasse dangers on either side.

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The summit pinnacle is a 400 ft. tall rock pyramid that is pretty straightforward and decorated with numerous anchors and ropes from older expeditions. The easiest and most direct way up is through a class 3-4 gully that may be covered in snow or ice earlier in the season. Later in the season, this gully may become a “bowling alley” of loose rocks. Use your judgment and forego the summit if conditions seem unstable.

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Once you’ve made it to the top, take a few deep breaths and pat yourself on the back! Like so many places in the North Cascades NP, the higher you go, the more rewarding the views. A sea of peaks looks up at you from below the summit of Shuksan, and hidden from view until the top is Mt. Baker looming to the west.

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As always, begin early (alpine start ~ 3 or 4am) so you have the advantage of hard, frozen snow for your crampons to grip into. This is a particularly popular climb so the later you begin, the more chances you have of running into a bottleneck up the summit gully or crowds at the top of the rock pinnacle.

Astonishingly, there is a pit toilet about 200 ft. downhill of the high camp overnight area. It is very exposed (both for the user and for audiences above), so be prepared to use your blue bags if necessary.

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Packing List:

  • North Cascades National Park Permit
  • Trekking poles
  • Ice axe
  • Crampons
  • Crampon-compatible mountaineering boots
  • Helmet
  • Alpine harness
  • Ice tool, snow pickets, ice screws, rope
  • Crevasse rescue kit
  • Headlamp + extra batteries
  • Overnight snow camping gear (tent, stove, cookware, sleeping bag, etc.)
  • Navigational gear
  • 2+ liters of water
  • Means to boil or treat water with iodine
  • Plenty of food
  • Blue bags for human waste
  • First aid kit, emergency GPS spotter
  • Emergency bivvy or shelter
  • Sun protection, storm protection, plenty of layers!

Mt. Hood Summit Climb

Photos from Mt. Hood, June 12, 2014 with Portland-based climbing group Mazamas.

  • Length: 8 miles
  • Elevation gain: 5,439 ft.
  • Summit: 11,239 ft.
  • Time: 12:30 am – 12:30 pm
  • Total time: 12 hours

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First clear shot of the day, just as the sun is coming up. We can barely see the Palmer ski lift here, which we followed all the way up from Timberline Lodge after our midnight start.

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Enjoying a break at sunrise, with the shadow of Mt. Hood visible over the valley.

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The summit is nearly there, yet we still have at least a couple hours of climbing to ascend the final 700 feet.

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Walking past Devils Kitchen, on the lower left. This is an active fumarole area that reeks of sulfur.

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Looking up the Hogsback. Many climbers rope up on this section, depending on icy conditions. If one person falls off of the steep edge, the person they are roped to must jump off of the other side to balance the weight.

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Final stretch to the summit over the icy trail.

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Bundled up at the summit with Mt. St. Helens in the background.

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Daunting view looking down back at the Hogsback, from the bergshrund.

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The whole Mazamas crew, at the summit.

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Pristine weather at Mt. Hood’s summit.

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Dad and I, celebrating our successful climb.

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Rappeling down the Old Chute.

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Descending from the summit, with the Pearly Gates shining over.

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Halfway down, last view of the summit before we reach the trailhead at Timberline Lodge.

Mt. St. Helens Summit Climb

Photos from Mt. St. Helens, May 29, 2014 with Dad.

  • Length: 10 miles (give or take, we got lost)
  • Elevation gain: 5,500 ft.
  • Summit: 8,366 ft.
  • Time: 7:15 am – 6:30 pm
  • Total time: 11.5 hours

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First look at the mountain, coming up out of the tree line.

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Majority of this route consists of lava rocks from the 1980 explosion. Lots of fun climbing up over and traversing these to find the trail.

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Conditions so foggy, I could barely see 10 feet in front of me.

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Breathtakingly steep grades became more visible when we breached the clouds.

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Met some fellow climbers on the summit.

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Close-up of the west-side of the crater of the mountain’s surrounding rim.

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Neighboring Mt. Adams visible above the clouds to the east.

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Summit smiles!

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Peeking over the summit into the crater that was blown from the 1980 explosion.

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Got a little lost on our traverse back to the trailhead…

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