Elbrus Safety and Rescue

We take your security and safety very seriously at Adventure Alternative, below is the rescue procedure on Mount Elbrus in the event of an accident or the need for a descent.

Dangers - there are no major crevasses or objective dangers on the main route, but weather is very temperamental and visibility can drop rapidly. Sudden storms and extremely cold weather are common. It is easy to become disorientated and wander off route, and there are many stories of frostbite and cold weather injuries on the mountain every year. A GPS is a useful piece of kit to take if you are experienced in it's use.  

Altitude is high enough to need good acclimatisation and an increased liquid intake during the climbing period. Summit day is a long day on the hill so it is vital to take plenty of liquid and lots of snacks and energy gels. Even on a day of fine weather, the ascent is exhausting and very challenging. Success will depend a lot on cumulative hydration, plenty of good food and rest, and a lot of will power. 

Crampons are needed to go to the summit, unless the snow is very soft, and walking poles are virtually a necessity. In the early part of the season especially when the ice is harder and there are patches of exposed slope, it is necessary to carry a walking axe and be proficient in it's use. We will provide this training during the trip. We recommend a walking axe for all trips even though you may not use it. A climbing helmet is not mandatory on this trip. 

The decision of whether to use a man rope is one that the guides will make depending on conditions and the ability of the group. The guides will always carry an emergency short rope and slings to help people down if necessary.

The picture below is the route on the north side showing the position of the camp at Lenz Rocks; the north route is different because it includes camping on the snow at high altitude (4650 metres), whereas on the south side you sleep in huts and most people take a ratrack or tracked vehicle up to about the same height. The north side is longer day to get to the summit and has fewer options for rescue from a ratrack because they don't work on this side. Sometimes if the wind is more than 30mph the guide will not make a camp at Lenz Rocks and start the trip from the top hut or high camp at 3800 metres. This makes for a very long summit day and a 1900m gain in elevation. The route is not difficult but the distance and gain in elevation can make this one of the hardest days you may have on a mountain. 

The picture below is ascending the south side, you can see the gradient is never very steep but this is an open slope with occasional ice patches and exposed to the elements. Good clothing is essential, including full length down jackets, crampons and good boots to prevent and emergency on summit day. 

elbrus south side, russia.jpg

Group splitting on summit day
This does happen and for all the usual reasons of tiredness and dehydration. In this case Sasha the guide can manage for some people to come down with a guide, but obviously not multiple groups which use up the guides. We operate the trip from a team point of view so we try to give everyone a chance, but if some people need to come down on summit morning then best that a small group come down leaving the potential summit team with enough guides to get to the top and back again safely. Again, the guide makes the call. Sometimes there are very strong climbers in the group who almost can become assistant guides, in other cases the group needs additional assistance. Sasha will make his decisions based primarily on safety. 
Fixed line
The west summit route to the plateau now has a fixed line in place for added safety. This means that you can clip in very easily, and be held in the event of a slip on that section which is the steepest on the mountain. It's also potentially icy. To clip in you will need your harness and a sling and two screwgate karabiners. Use one karabiner to attach the sling to your harness, and use the other karabiner to attach the sling to the fixed line. When you come to an anchor point on the fixed line make sure you are safe and stable, and then move the karabiner across the anchor and screw it shut again. It’s a simple safety system but you will also need your walking axe and pole for support. If the ground is icy then use your crampons, if it is soft snow then do not wear crampons because they will fill with snow and become mini skis. Be careful because halfway up the route the ground changes and just below the lip to the summit plateau you will find the ground harder, with ice on rock. Make sure your crampons are handy just in case.

Emergency procedure
In the event of a rescue or an emergency, the guides and Sasha will manage the situation on the ground along with the mountain rescue team using mobile phones, as there is signal on the mountain. All parties will then co-ordinate a rescue involving an assisted descent down the mountain using primarily the tracked vehicles and manpower on the south side, and only man power on the north side. Serious accidents may involve the use of a stretcher, and there are several stretchers in the huts on both sides. 

If an accident occurs in the Saddle between the two peaks then there is an emergency shelter in the middle with room for two people to sleep if necessary and a group to rest if the weather is bad. This hut is painted a bright orange. There are no supplies inside but it offers shelter and is an extremely useful facility since people do get lost in a whiteout, especially coming off the peak.

If a group is coming up the north side and runs into problems in the Saddle then it is safer to use the emergency hut and descend the south side where a ratrack can be called and an injured person can be taken to a hut more quickly. On the north side an injured person would need to be bodily carried all the way to the snowline at the top hut. 

Injured people will then be taken to the nearest hut, north or south, and kept warm and safe until a decision is made to move further down the mountain. On the south side this can again be done with the ratrack vehicles and then transferred to the cable cars to get to the village in less than an hour. On the north side an injured person would need carried or assisted with manpower to the base camp and then taken by car to the nearest town and hospital. 

On the south side the nearest hospital is in Nalchik, about an hour and a half by car. On the north side the nearest hospital is in Pyatigorsk, where the team arrived. Note that there is little or no mobile signal on the north side and in all situations any payments would need to be made in cash and recovered later. The insurance company can help with the repatriation of somebody from the airport but they have very little influence over direct payments to Russian hospitals. 

Common reasons for rescue are exposure due to the cold, getting lost because of whiteouts near the summit, exhaustion and collapse due to altitude. Our trip has enough acclimatisation to ensure people are ready for going to 5642 metres but a lot of companies have shorter trips (and cheaper ones) and they start their summit day from a lower hut to save money. This is not only silly but it's very dangerous. Cheap trips on this mountain generally mean corners have been cut, and the most common is to reduce acclimatisation time and try to summit from a lower point. We do not condone this and in nearly twenty years of trips we have never had a major rescue or fatality due to the reasons above. 

Sasha will make his decisions discussing with the other russian guides and taking into account all the factors. He may not communicate this to you precisely and this is a problem of communication, not because you are being ignored. People like to know what is happening so feel free to always ask, but be patient with the language barrier even though Sasha does speak good English. On summit day there might not be that much chat, and Russian guides are not known for their loquaciousness! But read up beforehand and get a map and do as much research beforehand as you can. There is a complete film of the north side trip on our website plus lots of information pages which will help prepare you for this challenging trip.
One of the negative comments we get from this trip is the language problem between group members and some of the guides who do not speak much English, and also the cultural gap that arises when the Russian guides are not very communicative about what is happening. Sasha Lebedev speaks good English and is very communicative but I would advise you to ask questions rather than wait to be told. The other Russian guides will be very good at their job and at knowing the mountain, but their natural reticence means that some people get frustrated, especially when the weather gets bad and decisions have to be made about continuing up or going down or splitting the group. The Russians have done this many times before and are well versed in how to manage such scenarios but there is no doubt that members used to collaborative, communicative feedback do feel frustrated. I can only suggest that you question Sasha as much as possible and always ask him to explain what is happening and ask him to tell the other Russian guides to do the same as best as they can.

Knowing when to go down and relying on the guides
Some people may not acclimatise well to altitude and for them it is simply not worth continuing if it is likely to be injurious to your health. “The mountain is always there” may be a cliché, but it is true though saying that our acclimatisation program has proved very successful over the years on the mountain and few people have had to go down due to altitude. If you did have to go down then the Guides will assist you all the time. If you are clearly sick and unable to make your own judgement then they will take you down and you will be in good hands.

The Guides themselves have climbed the mountain so many times that they are adept at recognising the point at which somebody is clearly not going to summit.

Our personal advice is to listen to your body. If it gets too hard and you are obviously very slow and finding it hard going, and perhaps getting frightened, then don’t risk your health and turn the trip into an awful memory. Better to go down and accept it gracefully. Conversely, do not be tempted to go faster than is planned for you, just because you are feeling fine.