Preparing for Mount Elbrus
This page gives more information on the mountain itself, the weather, accommodation and summit day expectations, plus an indication of the differences between going on the north or south side.
The Caucasus Mountains rise below the great plains of Russia and extend for 1200 km from East to West, between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. The mountain system includes dozens of peaks over 4000 meters high and about 2000 glaciers.
Prielbrusie or the area around Mt. Elbrus is the most frequented area in the Central Caucasus and Elbrus itself is a popular ski resort for Russians. Many valleys converge in the main valley where the Baksan River flows and lead up to the most famous and beautiful mountains in the Caucasus range, such as Mt. Donguz-Orun (4468 m), Mt. Shkhelda (4320 m), Mt. Chatin (4368 m), the legendary Mt. Ushba (4710 m), and Mt. Elbrus itself (5642 m), the highest peak in Europe.
Mount Elbrus dominates the countryside of the Central Caucasus like a twin-peaked icy giant. The two peaks correspond to two different volcano vents: the western peak (Zapadnaya) is the tallest one, while the eastern peak (Vostochnaya), 5621 meters high, still has a gigantic crater 250 meters in diameter. The entire mountain is covered by an immense sheet of ice that takes up 145 square kilometres and in some zones is 400 meters thick. From the col that divides the two peaks, the white slopes of the mountain descend gently, splitting up into tongues of ice and crevasses lying in the many striking valleys that radiate from the mountain. A circular lava massif, it has a diameter of 18 kilometres and more than 70 large and small glaciers flow from its slopes.
Neither summit is technically difficult and even though you could ascend from a variety of directions, few venture from the standard route up the West Peak which utilises the cable cars up to the Garabashi Barrels (3800m). Other routes on the south side would attract access difficulties and extensive crevassed areas which would make them very difficult propositions. The other route on the north side is also very feasible and we do several trips a year on that side, although it requires more self-sufficiency and is more remote.
Elbrus Weather and Types of Clothing
Elbrus is at a latitude of 42 degrees North, similar to that of Rome. However, due to its altitude and its surrounding mountain range, it can produce some extreme weather conditions and very low temperatures and should not be underestimated by potential climbers.
The main climatic peculiarities of the region are related to altitude and the dominant westerly airstream. Adjacent ridges and mountains moderate the influence of northerly and westerly winds of the climate of the valleys in the Elbrus Region.
You can see 6-day weather forecasts and temperatures for the mountain at different altitudes on Mountain-Forecast.com.
We visit the mountain during the optimum period of the year in terms of conditions but as with all weather, and in particular in mountain regions, it has a large amount of unpredictability to it. This, of course, includes the possibility that very bad conditions may cause a summit attempt to be delayed or even cancelled.
For the initial days of walking lower in the valleys we can generally expect still air temperatures in the region of 15-20 degrees C. However, these temperatures could be accompanied by either very strong UV sunlight and clear skies, requiring shorts, tee-shirts, sunhat and glasses, or by more overcast skies and breezes coming off the adjacent snow-caps probably requiring trousers, soft or hard-shell jacket and maybe even light hat and gloves.
There is also the chance of rain or light snow. We will therefore always need to carry a hard-shell jacket, spare warm layer, hat and gloves as a minimum.
Moving Up the mountain
As we move up onto the permanent snowfields the temperatures will inevitably drop by around another 10 degrees per 1000m as a result of the increased altitude. We are likely to be dressed for temperatures of around 5 degrees C and prepared for considerably lower. We will probably be in long trousers, base-layer top, mid-layer top and soft or hard-shell jacket. We may very well also be walking in a warm hat and thin gloves but also with sunglasses due to the glare off the snow. Until we venture into the snow we are likely to still be wearing our general trekking boots, although these do need to be reasonably warm and also to provide good ankle support.
Low visibility on the lower slopes of the mountain; the group needs to stay close together.
As we make our way beyond the first hut we will be further layered-up for low temperatures of perhaps 0 degrees C and well prepared for still-air temperatures down to perhaps -10 or -15 degrees C and effective temperatures with wind-chill of more like -20 degrees C. Our kit will now include mountain boots with crampons and down jackets with goggles.
Summit Day Expectations
Leaving the hut in the dark on summit morning we are likely to be in warm boots and crampons, soft-shell or mountain trousers or base-layer tights and walking trousers, probably with hard-shell over-trousers, long-sleeved base-layer, a couple of fleece mid-layers and a down jacket plus a shell jacket for protection. Balaclava/buff, warm hat covering ears, liner gloves and thick windproof insulated gloves or mitts are necessary. In the bag carry goggles, sunglasses, flask of hot drink, water bottle, snacks and harness/sling/karabiners which you might use for tying into the fixed line or into a man rope.
Clothing needs to be adaptable to a variation in conditions and levels of exertion. The best way to achieve this is through a layering system and a good knowledge of being efficient with what you wear and knowing how to regulate your personal climate on a mountain. This means testing your clothing beforehand so you are familiar with what works for you.
Icy ground on the open slopes up to the Saddle require sharp points on your crampons and a walking axe.
A clear beautiful morning on Elbrus, every person has the right kit and clothing and enough to cope with significant changes throughout the day.
Toilets on Mount Elbrus
All the huts have outside latrines which are wooden huts with a floor and a long drop. Some latrines are worse than others, and it is not the job of the Rangers to clean them. Company staff can do this job, but under duress, since many of the problems are caused by people who miss the hole and don’t clean up afterwards. Sometimes a visit to a latrine can be a dispiriting experience. It is important to take a torch with you at night and take a responsibility to keep the huts clean. Going to the toilet behind a rock is strictly forbidden and the authorities have the power to send people off the mountain if they are caught, and fine the company.
Rubbish Disposal on Elbrus
All rubbish is collected by the staff and carried down the mountain. Do not throw rubbish down the long drop (toilet paper is fine) and make a habit of picking up litter that you see on the trail. The responsibility for keeping the mountain clean is on the shoulders of every visitor.
Accommodation on Mount Elbrus
On the south side all of the accommodation is in huts on the mountain, and the new National Park huts are heated and comfortable with bunks and mattresses in small dormitories. There is wi-fi and phone signal. A communal area for eating and relaxing is next to the kitchen. We would recommend a 3 or 4 season sleeping bag. We have an expedition cook who will prepare all the food for everyone throughout the trip but do bring some snacks and sweets from home.
On the north side the accommodation is in tents at base camp and in a fairly rudimentary hut at the snowline. Sometimes the team camp at the high Lenz Rocks before summit day, but only if the weather allows it. We would recommend 4 season sleeping bags and you will need a good quality sleeping mat.
Water Supply on Mount Elbrus
We do not bring bottled water on the mountain; we boil all water which comes from the rivers and glacial streams. The staff will fill your water bottles every evening. Feel free to bring some water purification tablets for yourself if you would like the extra reassurance (iodine is fine). You could also bring a Steripen which will also kill all germs.
The North Side of Mount Elbrus is less accessible and requires teams to be more self-sufficient.