Skiing at elevation, above 4,000 m, was something I hadn’t done before. Mount Elbrus is a giant dormant volcano with rounded peaks, a gentle slope and permanent snow making it a great mountain to ski.
Mount Elbrus is the highest mountain in Europe at 5,642 m and one of the Seven Summits, the highest mountain on each continent. It is situated in the Caucasus Mountain Range which stretches 880 km from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. Located in Russia, Mount Elbrus is only a few kilometers from the border with Georgia and not far from Chechnya.
After a long flight from Calgary, Canada to Moscow, Russia I had planned on catching a flight directly to Mineralnye Vody, but that didn’t work out. After transferring to Domodedovo airport, 76 km away, I waited for my next flight. Forty-five min before my flight I became worried that no one else was at the gate. There were no monitors nearby. Finally, I found one that said the gate had been changed and boarding had already closed. Mineralnye Vody is near Chechnya and I was there during the time of the Second Chechen War. There was a lot of extra airport security and last minute boarding was not allowed. The airline had already removed my luggage and the next flight wasn’t until the next day. The airport is 42 km from the centre of Moscow so I was to spend a night near Domodedovo airport. There’s not much to do there, except wait.
Finally, 24 hours later, the flight to Mineralnye Vody took off and I was on my way to the mountains. My guide, Sergei, met me at the Mineralnye Vody airport. He was surprised when I began speaking with him in Russian. Growing up in Poland we had to take Russian language classes. I hated it at the time, but I have to admit, it has proved useful.
On the drive to the ski resort town of Azau we passed through police checkpoints every few kilometers reminding me of our proximity to Chechnya. It seemed to be customary to bribe the police because our driver slipped them bills at each checkpoint. I had to register at one of the checkpoints with my passport and itinerary. A British guy that I met was charged $50 USD because he didn’t have all of his paperwork. I think the police pocketed the money.
The drive took us to the Baksan Valley. Before the town of Terskol we stopped to look at the WWII canons on side of road. They’re used to shoot down avalanches.
At 2,286 m the town of Azau is located at the base of Mount Elbrus. It’s a small resort village full of skiers in the winter and climbers in the summer. Technically it’s a ski resort, but it’s not a fancy one. I had an interesting hotel room in Azau. The bright pink wall and colourful lights looked more like a 1970s disco than a room in a ski resort. It would be an interesting few nights trying to sleep with all of these bright colours.
With a moderate grade and no technical sections, the South Route is the most popular climbing route on Elbrus. It’s different than many alpine climbs because climbers don’t continuously move up the mountain. Instead, climbers stay in mid-mountain huts and make day trips up and down the mountain. The other thing that is different is that approximately 50% of the climbers, including me, were on skis.
Day 1 – Acclimatization day, Azau to Mir Station to Barrel Huts
Elevation gain from top of Mir Station – 298 m
On our first day on the mountain we went for an acclimatization ski. It was May so there was no snow at the base of the mountain. Instead, a run-down téléphérique would transport us to Mir Station at 3,452 m. My guide told me that one year, after fall of communism, it had been so poorly maintained that the cable broke and two cars fell to the ground. I was hoping it was better maintained since then, but it didn’t look very good. It appears that a new téléphérique has recently been installed so no one has to relive my frightful rides.
At the top of the téléphérique is a single-person chair, Garabashi. It was closed and there was enough snow so we put on our skies and started climbing. The weather was poor and a thick fog meant there were no views. When we reached the top of Garabashi chair it started to snow. Garabashi is Balkarian for “where black rock meets glacier.” From this point there is permanent snow all the way to the summit.
A little further up, at 3,750 m, we reached Barrel Huts (Bochki). Since the weather was not cooperating, we didn’t spend much time at the huts. We skied back down to the téléphérique and returned to the disco room in Azau.
Roughly half of those who attempt to summit Elbrus do it on alpine touring skis. These skis have specialized bindings that allows you to walk with your heel unclipped, but then when you’re ready for downhill, you clamp your heel in place. Skins applied to the bases allow you to climb without slipping back. The skins are easily removed when you’re ready for a downhill run.
Day 2 – Azau to Mir Station to Barrel Huts
Elevation gain from Mir Station – 298 m
We repeated our tracks from the previous day including another ride on the rickety téléphérique, but this time we had our bags. Since we were staying in the Barrel Huts and would only be there a few days we didn’t have much gear and our bags were quite small. Again the day was foggy and we couldn’t see much. I had no idea what the mountains looked like and if I was missing any nice views.
The barrels are not very luxurious. These massive metal barrels sleep 6 in very close quarters. I planned on spending 4 nights here, but if it kept snowing like it was, it would even be longer. I shared the barrel with 5 Austrian climbers. We ate our meals in a trailer style dining room. The attached kitchen wasn’t the cleanest, but I didn’t get sick so it must not have been too bad.
Days 3 and 4 – Acclimatization day Barrel Huts to Prius-11 Hut and Pastukhova Rocks
Elevation Gain – Day 3 – 350m, Day 4 – 920 m
We had another two days of acclimatization. The snow was quite deep for May and there was fresh snow so it was nice to be on skis. The sky improved over the two days and the mountains were beginning to show themselves. I could see the Caucasus mountains all around with their tall, snowy peaks.
A t-bar is immediately above the Barrels. In May the t-bar was closed making it look quite desolate. We skied passed it on our way up the mountain. After a while we reached Diesel Hut (4,100 m). It was a large facility used by climbers and skiers. Diesel Hut slept 120 people but had a very small kitchen so people brought their own camp stoves for cooking. One year a small fire started in one of these camp stoves. One of the skiers quickly grabbed a liquid to put it out, but they didn’t grab water. By mistake they grabbed fuel. The entire camp burned down.
Above Diesel Hut is Prius-11 at 4,100 m. It had been used in the past by scientists and when Diesel Hut burned down climbers and skiers started to use Prius-11. We looked inside and it is even more rustic than the barrels. Some climbing groups moved up to stay at Prius-11, but I was happy to ski all the way down to the Barrels.
The difficult part of a climb like this is that the scenery doesn’t change. The first three days were very cloudy, so we didn’t even have good views. On day 4, however, the skies started to clear. It was another acclimatization day where we repeated our steps to Prius-11 and continued to reach a feature called Pastukhova Rocks (4,670 m). After a few minutes at the rocks, we skied all the way back to the Barrels.
By the time we got back to the Barrels the double peaks of Elbrus started to poke through the clouds, but the mountain wouldn’t completely show itself yet. The good news was that the weather seemed to be improving so we decided to make a summit bid the next day.
Day 5 – Barrel Huts to Mount Elbrus summit
Elevation Gain – 1,892 m
We woke early to start our 1,892 m climb to the summit. On the way we were treated to a gorgeous sunrise over the Caucuses. The tall mountains Ushba and Donguzorun were glowing in the first rays. It was nice to finally have a clear sky, but it was quite chilly at close to -20°C. Sergei and I retraced our steps passing Diesel Hut and Pruis–11.
Just before Pastukhova Rocks a snowcat passed us. Some climbers take a snowcat to the rocks and begin their sumit bid from there. To me it felt like cheating. As well, it would cost over $160 USD as I would have to pay for both myself and Sergei. He was probably hoping I would take the snowcat, but I’d rather ski. From Pastukhova Rocks, we still had another 972 m to climb before reaching the summit.
There were a few exposed crevasses on the glacier when I was there, but we were able to avoid them. Some years, or later in the season, they may be more exposed but for us the crevasse danger was quite low. As well, skiing is safer than walking on a crevasse field.
From the Rocks, we could see the twin peaks of Elbrus looming above. Elbrus is an extinct volcano that last erupted in 50 AD. It has two summits. The West summit is the highest at 5,642 m. The East Summit is only 21 m lower. In between is the Saddle at 5,300 m.
When we arrived at the Saddle we could see that the route to the summit was very wind blown with crusty snow that didn’t look enjoyable to ski. My guide was not a good skier and I don’t enjoy skiing on cauliflower-like ridges, so we left our skis at the Saddle, and put on crampons. There are only a few crevasses from the saddle to the summit and the trail was hard packed so it was quite safe to walk.
Walking up the slope, putting one foot in front of the other, the rounded summit was getting closer. My goal to reach the top of Europe was almost achieved. Finally, I made it and all of Europe was below me. I was elated. As I looked around I could see the Caucasus laid out under a bluebird sky. It was a breathtaking view.
After spending 45 minutes enjoying the view from the summit we started to make our way back down the mountain. At the Saddle we put our skis back on and although we were very tired, we had a great ski all the way to the Barrels for one last night. Remarkably we had a great views of the Caucasus including the rugged Mt Ushba and glaciated Mt Donguzorun for the entire descent. When arriving at the Barrels, I looked back up and could see all the way up to Elbrus’ snowy summit. I’m so glad the weather improved as I had no idea this view was even possible.
After enjoying a beautiful sunrise that morning we were glad to have a gorgeous sunset from the Barrels that night.
We had an extra day that we could use in case of bad weather on the mountain, but since the weather cooperated, we had a day to spend in Azau. The Baksan Valley is really pretty so we decided to go for a small hike above the ski resort of Tereksol. The trail went through green forests and meadows. It was the most vegetation I had seen in the last few days. We ended at a lovely, small waterfall.
That night we met with Sergei’s friends where we celebrated with a few too many bottles of Cognac.
After the climb I still had an extra day to explore Moscow. I had been to Moscow before, but still enjoyed seeing the sights around the Red Square. One statue that I thought was nice was Pozharsky Minin in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Funnily, I later learned that it was built to commemorate the expulsion of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth forces from Russia in the 1600s.
Moscow is known for having many scams against tourists. I was almost a part of one in the Red Square. A man dropped what looked like a roll of US dollars in front of me. I ignored it, but if you pick it up another man tells you he’ll split it with you. He tells you to follow him to a quiet side street. The original man that dropped the money rushes to the side street and asks for his money. He claims that what he dropped was real money, and won’t accept the roll of fake bills. They use scare tactics and bully you into giving them money.
Coming Next: Skiing the French Robertson Traverse in Kananaskis
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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