We’re often asked ‘what’s the difference between the South and North routes on Mt Elbrus?’.
The easy answer is that the North route is a different type of expedition to the South route and should only be considered by those who are fit and have tested their abilities at altitude and in cold climates. Why? Well let’s scratch the surface:
First and foremost the decision over North v’s South route needs to be made by you and you must be realistic about your fitness, ambitions, abilities and experience. A decision made from the comfort of your home can sometimes be questioned in a whiteout at 5000m :0)
Terrain: Underfoot the terrain is similar on both sides in that it’s snow / ice slopes requiring crampons with occasional rock sections.
Weather / temperature: Again similar but of course the north side of any mountain in the northern hemisphere tends to be hit a bit harder. Elbrus is susceptible to bad weather all year round and no matter what side you climb, you must be prepared for this in terms of clothing and kit.
Accommodation: This is where we start to differ! On the south side accommodation is in a hotel at base and then huts on the mountain, which although they vary in standard, they’re a solid shelter to cook, eat and sleep in.
On the north side, base is a campsite where we have a communal tent for dining and enjoying the craic in the evenings. There is a high hut on the mountain which we tend to use but it’s sometimes necessary to camp here too and on snow. We also try, as long as the weather allows, to put in a high camp at Lenz Rocks which can be windy and exposed. This means that you’ll need to be happy, prepared and able to pitch your tent in cold strong winds, camp on snow and look after yourself (melting snow, cooking food etc) in these conditions.
Route / Support: The South route offers lush green acclimatisation hikes in beautiful, untouched meadows not dissimilar to the Alps. The North side has lower level green valley treks but a bit more barren. Both routes require similar equipment (harness, axe, crampons) and both routes allow plenty of time to acclimatise and train using ropes, crampons, axe etc. Finally, on both routes we have cooks (except high camp on the North route) to prepare food.
The South route is well supported in terms of infrastructure. It has cable cars, which take your kit up for you and snow machines, which speed your ascent on summit morning (this section you’ll have covered on foot the previous day). The altitude profile is below and as you can see it’s gradual in terms of acclimatisation.
The North route doesn’t have any cable cars or any of the infrastructure found on the south side. All kit must be carried up to the high camps however we do use porters for group gear (tents, kitchen equipment etc). It’s sometimes possible, though not guaranteed, to hire a porter to carry your personal gear however it’s done over a few acclimatisation days – so packs are only full on the descent (gear can also be left at base camp). The altitude profile is above and you’ll see it’s longer and more defined than the south. Summit day is similar to the south route ‘if’ we manage to put in a high camp. If not, then summit day is a long, long day requiring good fitness and self management in terms of food intake and cold weather skills.
In summary the North route on Elbrus is tougher than the South route but both are very rewarding and challenging climbs in a stunningly beautiful part of the world. People who are considering the North route must be aware of the differences between the two climbs and be confident with their fitness, experience and abilities. You should also be prepared to be more self sufficient / reliant. If you have climbed Kilimanjaro then the south side is a good challenge and progression. If you have Scottish Winter or Alps experience, or if your ambitions further down the line are for Aconcagua or some of the Himalayan peaks then the North side is a good option.
Then of course there's another option.... The Mt Elbrus Traverse! Climb up the North Route to the summit and descend by the South Route! But we'll leave that for another day......