Elbrus the easy way

Expedition: Elbrus North-South Traverse

Rolfe Oostra

Elbrus is the highest mountain in Europe and as such important to those collecting the seven summits. It has a well-deserved reputation for fierce weather and like any mountain must be treated with respect. However as part of the seven summits it surely gets the tag as being the easiest especially if climbing it from the south via its normal route. Taking this approach the most problematic thing is getting a Russian visa and getting your head around climbing “Russian style”

Take the initial acclimatisation ascent of Cheget peak (3460m) for example. The concept of an “acclimatisation climb”  familiar to those having climbed other high mountains does not apply as here you are simply whisked up the peak by a unique single seater chair lift. Not much moving your legs required just a trust in pre-war Russian technology and enjoy the ride.

And what an enjoyable ride it is; this area is hugely popular with Russian day trippers and as you are going up you pass hundreds of folk being carried down from the viewing platforms above. On the way up Ian and I happily made passing acquaintances with waving hot Russian babes dressed as if going to a nightclub, camouflaged soldiers armed to the teeth, a midget strapped to another midget and a gimp. A better insight into this country could not be imagined.

When you reach the upper platform you do have to move your legs to totter up to the peaks shoulder and from there can enjoy the truly spectacular views of the mighty Caucus range and low flying military helicopters . After a bit of time here it’s down again for another waving session and a beer in the tourist village of Cheget.

The next day we got to grips with serious mountain ascending on the mighty Elbrus itself. Laden with climbing kit and boxes of food and accompanied by Elena the cook and Daniel my Russian colleague we jumped into a minivan that took us to the first of 3 cable car stations at 2300m. There was no queue and swiftly we loaded up our stuff into a red box build to hold 20 passengers that is suspended below very thick cables and driven by huge diesel engines and immense cogs. The things starts with a tremendous whirring and up you go to the second station where you jump into another red box and then onto another single seat chairlift to arrive at the first camp site called the Barrels.(3750m). This camp-site is unique in comparison to other base camps in that it resembles a 1960’s industrial estate and by the fact that it was voted by a poll conducted by a UK trekking magazine as having the most disgusting toilet facilities found on a mountain anywhere. The first challenge today is taking a photo that is not spoilt by an electricity pylons, rusty cabins or concrete power stations. The second challenge for us was to climb up a perfectly groomed piste to 4000m where we had our own private hut away from the riff-raff below.

Having stayed in countless mountain huts cabins this one was great with an electric heater and blankets and boasting amazing views of not only the beautiful twin summits of Elbrus and its huge glaciers flowing of its flanks but the incredible Caucus range spread out below. We shared our dining cabin with 2 Kenyan girls off to tick their second seven summit having already climbed Kilimanjaro. It was weird bouncing Swahili phrases off each other so high up in a metal box but that’s what the seven summits are all about; a collector frenzy that attracts a huge diversity of people.

The next day we had a leisurely breakfast in preparation for an acclimatisation climb up the groomed piste to 4800m. The sun was shining and we joined by dozens of  “climbers” whizzing past on ski-do’s and Pisten-bullies to gain a bit of altitude and to enjoy this great mountain as well. We arrived at our designated high point, marked by a broken down snow-plough relatively early and decided that since there was no wind and that the sun was shining we’d climb a little higher; a kinda see what happens move. At 5000m we were still feeling ok and decided to acclimatise further by going to the top.

We made our way up against heavy traffic coming down. Having started early the folk whose intention it had been to summit today were coming down many in a complete state of exhaustion. A majority had enjoyed an early morning head start by taking up a snow mobile to near 5000m and reached the summit many hours before us. We were taken aback by the condition of this bedraggled army of Elbrus summiteers filing past us. Were we doing the right thing pushing on? By the look of things, conditions were surely going to get a lot tougher. Still up we went.

We reached the summit after 5 ½ hours of climbing in perfect conditions. No wind and glorious sunshine. We had the highest point in Europe to ourselves and stayed for a long time soaking up both this unique experience and tremendous views. Daniel pointed out the fantastically shaped lower peaks stretching well into Georgia and the incredible climbing routes put up by the Russian climbing legends of long ago.

Then as with all good things our time on the summit came to an end and we retraced our route down. We passed many others still descending, some being assisted by their climbing buddies and some totally out of it. I guess this is what happens when you begin to take the climbing out of climbing by installing a lot of infra-structure to zoom you high up a peak as mighty as Elbrus. People have begun to under-estimate the mountain are un-prepared mentally, physically and equipment wise to tackle a mountain almost a kilometre higher than Mont Blanc. The huge number of bronze memorials attached randomly to rocks commemorating the loss of climbers killed in bad weather conditions, through exhaustion or altitude related illness was a sombre reminder of this. I was concerned about one Norwegian guy in particular being dragged down by his buddies but ironically was thankful to hear the chain-saw like sound of a ski-do called up to rescue him.

In all my Elbrus experience was a happy one; I loved the company of my good friend Ian and the cheerful hospitality of my new Russian friends. However the weirdness of ascending a mountain in such a way is both amusing and disturbing. It didn’t feel like I had truly earned the summit by putting in the hard graft normally needed to gain such a noble summit.

I will be back, next week in fact, but not to climb Elbrus from the south. Next week I will be guiding a group of experienced climbers hoping to do a complete traverse from the North. We’ll be camping and carrying our own loads. We might not be guaranteed to summit but part of me feels that this is not what experiencing an ascent of a giant mountain like Elbrus is about. The summit as per always is a bonus and having truly earned it by climbing it on your own terms is definitley an experience that tastes all the more sweeter.


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