Summiting Elbrus

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June 20th 2012
Published: August 13th 2012
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1: View from 4300 m 38 secs

Most of photos are simple landscapes on the route to Elbrus.
This entry I’m really proud of though from a professional alpinist’s point of view Elbrus might seem a mere trifle. It takes so much time to compose my thoughts and write it all down though I made brief notes during the trek.

I bought the trek with a Ukrainian company for 350 Euros and our group included only Belarusian and Ukrainian citizens, I was the only one from Russia. We met in Pyatigorsk on the 20th of June and the small bus took us to Elbrus village where Elbrus treks and summiting usually begins. The road took about three hours. The guide, Maxim, was a professional alpinist; there were also two other alpinists, one a guide (Alexander) and the other a friend of Maxim (Alexey) who joined our group out of the desire to check his strength; also Vova and Olga. The weather was excellent that day; at 15.00 we made a stop to fill some damned gas bottles which would not fill, and so we lost almost an hour during which I fidgeted. Soon we entered the gorge and gradually gained altitude. The issue with the bottles was solved the next morning (they were delivered for a small price).

At 18.00 we reached the café cum private-run hotel Saklya to spend the night in tents (actually, the trip plan specified our staying near Narzan springs, but it was adjusted on the spot). Maxim distributed the gear such as crampons, tents, ice axes, safety line, latch hooks, helmets, and foodstuffs. In the evening, we (not familiar with the gear) tried on the safety system and the crampons to adjust them. I at once confessed I had not managed to get all the paraphernalia for the trekking; however, later it turned out that some things the others lent me, and some things I did without, and we even found some nice warm mittens after 4000 m.

A group of Slovaks (on several minibuses) came to the café; on the last day of our trip I learned that 27 out of 30 Slovaks had summited the mountain from the Southern route. I’d not join such a large group even free of charge, probably, it’s too many people. Our group was only 8, and we met nobody on the route save a couple of persons on the way back, and that lent the trip its specialness and quiet. You see, one has to immerse into the nature and one’s inner world; but it all depends, solo summiteers are less often, because it is safer and more fun to be with a company.

The café walls are decorated with a lot of flags of different countries (such as Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and some Balkan States) with summiteers’ autographs; the café serves appetizing home-made dishes and some sorts of booze. It is not at all advisable to take a nip before the trek, but it’s a pleasure afterwards. I remember the excellent cognac we tasted there, the best I ever tried, but I did not memorize its brand. Somehow it turned out that I did not have any good sleep in the tent during those days, only on the last, when I booked a room for one night.


On the first day we got up at 7 o’clock and it was a bit cold; gathering of things lasted for almost two and a half hours. The hills near Saklya promised an excellent journey, breathtaking both literally and figuratively. I did go quite well, though the backpack was heavy and the road was uphill mostly. At first, when we crossed the tiny settlement of Elbrus, the guides seemed to have forgotten the way wondering hither and thither until finally they asked a local woman to remind them the way.

The bridge is small and crosses a mountain river flowing fast among beige stones. I must say I take immense pleasure in remembering that trip. As we rose higher, the Elbrus Settlement spread itself before our eyes and to me the five-storey buildings looked alien among the hills and the distant peaks only beginning to appear from their hides, covered with patches of snow; the sun shone happily on everything and everyone and all seemed perfect on this planet.

It became more perfect when we, quite soon, approached the Narzan spring easily recognized by heavily brown colour due to the minerals. The water did not taste like bottled stuff, it felt genuine, and freezing fresh. This mineral water looses its taste just in a single hour; so it’s useless to take much of it for the road. I wondered if the locals had Narzan taps in their homes.

As it is always there, the first glimpse of mountains occupied a smaller portion of the landscape, conquering it little by little with every hundred meters of ascent. Tapered hills crowded with trees were at their best now, and the whole world turned into a kingdom of green, blue, various shades of brown (beige), and white colours, making us humans feel the harmony of creation and the temporality of our lives. However, these thoughts only occur to me now as I am writing, but back then I simply enjoyed every little blade of grass and every spring and every horse or cow we met on our way.

The first glimpse of Elbrus made me shiver because I realized the whole greatness of the affair for self; wondering whether I’d be able to see its top; though the website states it’s doable by any human with average physique. I’d soon see. Actually, the very tiny spot on the photograph with the first glimpse of Elbrus is the 5614 top as such; the mountain has two distinct peaks, the Southern route is, I suppose, the simplest and most popular one; the connoisseurs (our alpinist guides) told that route was not as picturesque.

The mountain river flowing nearby the trail was dirty due to the soil (there was many a spring on the way). Soon we reached the camping site; we first proceeded uphill but then decided to go down because there'd be no camping sites above or they would be too far for the first day. As I did not get much tired and wished to continue ascending, I planned to visit to the waterfall near the camp and then ascend a bit higher just to evaluate the views. I was joined by the Donetsk alpinist Alexey; we conversed much mainly about mountains and he told me a lot about alpinism while I remarked about my fears. We missed the waterfall because I chose the wrong way. The view from above was definitely better and I liked most the sight of the two rivers meeting. It was easy to ascend the grassy hill, but more difficult to descend it.

Later that day our group of 5 persons went to the waterfall, which shot gallons of water like a gun from the height of several meters. For supper, we had rather a peculiar soup with instant noodles, canned fish, and salo.


It was a fine morning after the bad sleep. My sleeping bag was cold and not rated for such temperature conditions. I’d gradually put on all my clothes for sleep. We were going up and up all the time. My backpack was quite badly packed causing me much inconvenience until I repacked it during the rest. There were several difficult uphill areas. Vova told us that people recommended walking for 40 minutes and resting for 10 minutes. I did not pay attention to whether we observed this guideline.

The trail wound itself among stones and grass; several friendly cows and horses were grazing there. At a certain point there occurred some conflict as to whether continue ascent or find a camping site as soon as possible. Vova said that we’d better climb only 700 meters per day (referring to the initial trip plan) for acclimatization purposes; our guide said the camping site would be very soon – indeed, it was, on top of a hill in several scattered places so all the tents were put up separately. I also got a bit angry with so much walking, because we did not have any competition for speed.

We stayed close to the glacier – it was not totally beautiful due to the thin streaks of dirt. The scenery was becoming browner because grass was replaced by rocks and stones and trees remained below. On the background, there were the higher ridges but their prominence was attenuated by the roundabouts.

We were quite lucky to have put up the tents just in time before the hailing. It was hailing intensely with minuscule round pellets melting quite soon after they reached the earth. During supper, I had bad appetite (the same during the next two days); the night was rather cold and I couldn’t sleep well. Next time I’ll take all the paraphernalia for warmth.


That day we had hard ascent to the top of the mountain pass (I forgot its name) via a snow covered portion where a bit of caution was due. From the mountain pass, we saw the very impressive view of Elbrus and its surroundings – a huge valley of snow below the mountain pass bordering on small rocks and several smaller hills farther away. We were crossing the white glacier wearing the safety system, safety line, crampons, ice axe and helmet. Five of us were tied to one safety line and the other three to another line. I breathed very hard and the light reflected by the snow hurt my eyes a bit (I did not wear sunglasses due to their unavailability; I had my usual glasses on). The glacier is hazardous due to crevasses which might open up and swallow someone; so my left leg did fall through the snow up to the knee almost. I extracted it at once and we proceeded to the safer rocks. It took about 40 minutes or maybe more.

Views were getting better and better; an unforgettable reflection of Elbrus in a pool of water. The route to the top was seen distinctly (the lava flood not covered with snow). What I liked about Elbrus was its overwhelming whiteness and magnitude.

The lack of sleep did not fail to affect me markedly, so I was very glad when we ascended the final stony areas. After unpacking and putting up tents, it started raining (or snowing, I forgot) so four of us (me, my tent-fellow Anatoly, Maxim and Alexey) had a so-called tea party in the tent – drinking tea with cheese and ham and talking about various topics like summiting Elbrus from various routes, and what not. Generally, Maxim, Alexey and the other guide, Alexander, told very interesting, funny or sometimes sad, stories related to their climbing practice, about Caucasus, and a lot about Crimea (there’s said to be excellent climbing in Crimea: I’m planning to explore the Southern Crimea Coast next year perhaps – it’s one of the Ukrainian gems, so I’ll never forgive myself for neglecting it, also the Carpathian Mountains claim my attention). I liked the guys’ positive outlook. I tried not to think about the summit but I looked forward to the panorama… The height already exceeded 4000 m.


The next morning was as fine as fine could be; the sun cheerfully illuminated the snow-sprinkled mountain ridges; there’s the Ushba mountain often mentioned in our group (it was their dream destination of a high difficulty rating) and indeed it towered like the master among other less formidable ‘giants’, with its two distinct peaks accompanying us almost during the whole way. I will not let myself the liberty of comparing the Altai, Himalayan, and Caucasus Mountains because I fancied them all; Altai was so like a dear old friend, accepting us as hospitably as it could and letting us to areas not yet disturbed by humans; Himalayas struck me with its incomparable magnitude, while Caucasus allowed my first, and I hope not my final, summit.

Elbrus was so close, just in front of us. To reach the last camping site before summiting, we had a bit of hard stones where I cursed my poor breath and felt wearier than on the other days (perhaps, it was the altitude effect). The mountains were all to the left; soon clouds would gather above them and enwrap them. The altitude of the camp was 4300 or something.

I was a bit missing my home. Snow lay everywhere but the sun was shining very brightly. I forgot to mention that my ears and nose got cooked and skin peeled off afterwards, because I used insufficient amount of sun cream. The day before, I tried sewing up my decomposing boots but it didn’t help much because the needle had a blunt tip.

There was mobile communication at such altitude (fantastic because they said there wouldn’t be any) so I wrote several messages and phoned my mother. I checked my mail though there was nothing of interest. I was not feeling quite fit as a fiddle and Maxim decided that the three of us (self, he, and Alexey; the others did not feel ready yet; I might refuse of course but I agreed without hesitation) would try to summit while the weather was good. Surprisingly, my legs were never tired on that journey.


We got up at 3 o’clock in the night to get ready for summiting. Admiring the stellated sky, I eyed the line of Milky Way rising high above. I slept only for an hour or two, rolling over in the sleeping bag. We had tea but I refused to eat any food because of lacking appetite and fear of vomiting.

It was not very steep climbing the first one or two hundred of meters buy then real “pleasure” began, alternating lava field – snow – lava field – snow, until finally snow was omnipresent. I had to stop ever so often to catch my breath which would not allow itself be caught, no, sir! We wore the crampons from almost the very beginning of the journey, but they were so uncomfortable on the lava areas – and obligatory on the snow and ice. When we started, it was dark, but little by little the sun brought the day.

At some point of the route I vomited a small amount of a substance; had I had eaten, there’d be lots. It was hard. The two professional alpinists, Maxim and Alexey, went rather quickly for me to catch up with them so I discarded this idea at once and staggered behind at my own tempo. Sometimes I thought that no matter how difficult each step might seem, it drew me nearer to the summit.

I did not pay much attention to the excellent views after the clouds covered the area. Every second, we got higher and higher and I knew the top was there.

There was a hazardous snow and rocks area where we had to use alpinist technique (ice drills and 'railings'😉 – it was a piece of steep ice where safety line was indispensable. Nothing like that was even mentioned in the trip plan, but I was rather interested to learn about the “railings”; I traversed the area quite fast and soon joined Maxim in the safe area, and then Alexey. On second thought, I could not wish for anything better and safer than to ascend the route with two professional alpinists and now I express my gratitude to them. Wonderful that I felt much better after this emotionally stirring passage.

We climbed the snow-coated slopes tied together to a rope and my pace was very slow. Finally, we approached a detached rock that I supposed was the summit, and indeed it was; to reach the top was with us the work of some 20-30 minutes, but the road was almost level now, save the top itself. I felt exhausted; in total the ascent took 9 hours. The view from the summit was hidden by clouds, but we could see three other distinct tops of Elbrus.

I hoped we’d have a rest after summiting but we only had a quick bite. The prompt descent was desirable because weather might, and would, change for the worst. The descent was easier at first, but dangerous because of the snow and ice, where we exercised caution and used ice drills and always tied to the safety line. It was lengthy and I almost fell asleep while approaching the lava field. There was mist, which might hinder our successful reaching the camp, but it soon thinned away. The little yellow tent of the members of our group, seen as a small spot downwards, approached slowly and got bigger and bigger and finally there were only a couple hundreds of meters left. The fellow trekkers met us with hot fruit tea and some questions. I said I was tired out and went to sleep immediately; I had sore throat due to drinking cold water during ascent. Olga (the only woman in the group) gave me some medicine. I felt delighted despite fatigue and slept heavily…


The other members of the group decided not to ascend though Anatoly, for instance, was anxious to go. But the weather seemed changed, and so everyone were collecting their things to go down.

Alexander, the guide, woke me in the morning and suggested joining them on descent to the first camping site, while several others would descend later. As I lay in a clouded mental state and tried to figure things out, I realized it’d be prudent to get down, though my first impulse was to lay motionless in the tent for the whole day. Without further delay, I gathered up everything and we started off. The thought of soon being back (the cozy Saklya) appealed to me. I will be a bore, but I wanted a soft and warm bed badly.

During descent, I felt giddy, my vision was baffled and I often stopped to blink and focus. We crossed the glacier with utmost caution, because there might be crevasses due to the melting snow. After a rest down the mountain pass and a bunch of peanuts and raisins, I felt much better and walked even faster than everyone else, leaving them far behind. I suddenly felt completely revived. While I waited for them, I rested, looked around and pondered over the events.

At the camping site, we made a lively fire and sat talking for the whole evening while it was raining persistently. We first discussed whether to descend to the Saklya but decided to stay and go there the next morning. We talked about Crimea, listened to alpinist stories, about linguistics, foreign languages, etc. I said I did not envy our fellows who stayed higher, because rain was getting steadier. A passing solo-mountaineer of advanced age from Belarus joined us for a cup of tea; he was going to summit Elbrus and then try Ushba, but we all thought it no good idea to go there alone.


We descended to Elbrus Settlement rather fast and I and the other trekker, Alexander, booked a room at the hotel, while Alexander and Alexey stayed in the tents (I did not want to rough it any more). We consumed a dinner of hychiny (pancakes) with cheese, borsch, and the spirit of satisfaction won over me, coupled with a bit of longing for home and a desire to make a similar ascent in future. I had to change the tickets because we descended 2 days earlier than planned and I did not want to stay there.

Alexander, the guide, suggested walking to the frontier post not far, so we proceeded there enjoying the forest and talking much; the evening was devoted to another ‘celebration’ supper, comprising cognac, currant tea (for self), shashlyk, tomatoes and cucumbers, and TV-watching.


Got up at 7 o’clock; three-hour drive to Pyatigorsk with Osman, the proprietor, for a small remuneration (he went to Pyatigorsk on his own business). It was raining rather hard but very soon I was in a taxi to the airport (I was afraid lest public transport would take me in time).

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