Ballpark Estimate: $1,175 to $5,600 (plus airfare to Russia)
The Caucasus Mountain Range rises up between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, dividing Europe (to the north) from Asia (to the south). Located in Russia, north of the main Caucasus Range, the two summits of Mt. Elbrus are inside European territory and, at 18,510 feet (5,642 meters) the western summit is thehighest point in Europe. Both summits of the dormant volcano are permanently snow-covered, and consequently offer a variety of ascent strategies.
Mt. Elbrus, with its heated huts, cable cars, ski lifts, snowcats, and helicopter skiing has been called the “most civilized” of the Seven Summits. While definitely strenuous, it is not a technical climb, and is often considered to be attainable by anyone in very good physical condition. During “high season” in the summer, 100 climbers have been known to attempt the summit in a single day. Basic glacier and winter mountaineering skills are advised, but many guide companies assure clients that they can “learn their skills on the mountain” if they’ve never used crampons or an ice axe before.
This casual reputation has led to disastrously unprepared attempts on the summit by unguided parties and, on average, between 15 and 30 people die on Mount Elbrus each year. It is necessary to gain about 5,000 feet of elevation on summit day which, depending on the route, weather, snow conditions, and skill level, can take 6 to 12 hours. Returning to safety below can take an additional 3 to 5 hours. Exhaustion, altitude sickness, white-out conditions, high winds, fog, disorientation – any number of factors can lead to sometimes catastrophic results.
Prerequisites: $1,000 to $1,800
Some, but definitely not all, guide companies recommend that you take their multi-day Mountaineering Prep Course, to learn basic mountaineering and cold weather expedition skills prior to this climb. This course is often held in the Cascade Range in western North America, and can be a good adventure, close to home.
When to Go
Most Mt. Elbrus trips are scheduled between May and September, when weather is relatively mild, with June to mid-August being the “high season.” However, heli-skiing is scheduled from February to mid-April to take advantage of the winter weather.
Gear and Clothing
Even in the summer months of July and August, temperatures on Mount Elbrus can be as cold as -5°F with plenty of snow and wind. The mountain is famous for its unpredictable and abruptly changing weather, with high winds, white-out conditions, or fog transforming a bright and sunny day into a life-threatening situation in a matter of minutes. Your guide company will send you a list of suggested clothing and gear, but see What It Costs For Expedition Gear and Clothing for a general idea.
Those planning to ski Mt. Elbrus are encouraged to bring:
- Avalanche Transceiver – $320 to $350
- Avalanche Probe – $50 to $60
- Collapsible Shovel – $40 to $50
Local tour companies will often rent gear and expedition clothing to you, but quality and fit is not guaranteed.
Travelers to Russia should be up-to-date on all their routine immunizations and consider Hepatitis A and B, typhoid, rabies, Japanese encephalitis, and influenza vaccines. Obviously, see your doctor 4 to 6 weeks prior to your departure.
Passports and Visas: $255+
A current passport, visa, and formal invitation (known as “visa support”) are required to enter Russia. The visa application process can be complicated and lengthy. Travel agencies or guide companies can offer assistance, and some recommend that you go through online visa service companies to guarantee that all forms are correctly filled out and all fees are paid on time. Once in Russia, you must register your visa at your hotel or a local police station within three business days of your arrival.
To climb Mt. Elbrus, you will need your passport, a Russian visa ($190+), a voucher with the Elbrus region mentioned on it, OVIR registration (available at MinVody airport for $15), and an Elbrus area preserve permit (about $50).
No matter what company you choose, you will most likely start your trip in Moscow. Travel time from the U.S. to Moscow is about 24 hours.
- $1,245 to $3,145 – Round trip from New York City (LGA) to Moscow (MOW)
- $1,380 to $5,525 – Round trip from Chicago (ORD) to Moscow (MOW)
- $1,370 to $6,000 – Round trip from Los Angeles LAX) to Moscow (MOW)
You will fly from Moscow to the industrial city of Mineralnye Vody (MinVody). The cost for this flight is included in most international tours but usually not in Russian-based tours.
- $285 to $500 – Round trip from Moscow (MOW) to Mineralnye Vody (MRV)
Note: If you do everything exactly wrong, you can end up spending as much as $840 for this 90-minute flight, so watch out!
Guided Trips: $670 to $5,100
- Lower prices represent short (8 day/7 night) trips sponsored by Russian companies. They do not include transportation costs or city tours within Russia, permits and fees, and some costs on the mountain. One company lists its “group equipment included in the cost” as a flashlight, a first aid kit, and a rope.
- Higher prices are often trips originating in the U.S., with longer duration (14-16 days), complementary city tours in Russia, group restaurant meals and hotels, well-known guides, high-tech extras like Internet and satellite phones, and close to a 100% success rate.
- Porter support is neither available nor necessary on Mt. Elbrus.
- Trips last anywhere from 8 to 15 days, but Day 1 is “arrive in Moscow” and Day 2 might be a city tour. Day 3 will be “fly and drive to base of mountain.” You’ll need extra days in case of bad weather and two days to get back to Moscow. Acclimatizing to the altitude is essential to the success of your trip, so be sure you feel comfortable with the schedule you’re signing up for.
- If you are traveling with an American company, Leave No Trace strategies are employed to keep pollution and litter to a minimum. If you’re traveling with a Russian company, be aware that it’s a different culture with different priorities.
There are so many different types of trips up Mt. Elbrus that the easiest way to summarize is to simply list possible scenarios, keeping in mind that weather, snow conditions, group dynamics, mechanical failures, scheduling, and the decisions of your guide can all change your plans at the last minute.
Moscow vs. St. Petersburg
Most trips begin and end in Moscow (with a tour of the city). However, you can find trips that either begin or end in St. Petersburg, for variation and more sightseeing.
The Normal Route (From the South)
This is the most popular route and sees around 1000 attempts every year. The route utilizes a hut system, as well as cable cars, ski lifts, and snowcats. The Barrels huts, at 12,870 feet, will be your first camp on the mountain. They are huge metal boilers transformed into rustic living spaces, and each sleep six with room for clothes and supplies. There is a separate kitchen hut. The Barrels are warm, dry, and lit, but cleanliness is an issue and in years past, the outhouse has been called “the nastiest outhouse in the world.”
The average guided tour spends about seven days on the mountain itself. The two cable cars and a chairlift take you to the Garabashi lift station and the Barrels huts, where you’ll spend two nights. Days will be spent acclimating and honing skills. Summit day is long (at least 10-12 hours) and hard, with a 5,260-foot gain. Some tours give you a snowcat ride for the earliest section, but the steep hiking is on foot and crampons are needed. Once you return to the Barrels Huts, you can ride the lifts and cable cars back down.
Mountaineer’s Route (From the North)
For people looking for a less “civilized” experience, there are guided trips on the more pristine northern side of the mountain. Trips start from a tent Base Camp at 7,000 feet, and, over the course of four or five days, climbers ferry their own gear and group gear to higher camps. Camp 1 is at 12,300 feet, and High Camp at Lenz Rocks is at 15,200 feet. Climbers wear crampons and rope up due to crevasse danger. Summit Day, you’ll gain 3,310 feet in elevation on harder climbing than the Normal Route, and then descend back the way you came.
Northern Route Variations
The previous trip description avoided using ski lifts and huts entirely. There are other trips that take advantage of the quieter north side, but still spend nights in huts. A traverse of the mountain involves a midnight departure on Summit day, followed by an 8- to 12-hour ascent to the summit, and then a descent onto the south side of the mountain to the cable car station at 12,500 feet.. At this point, climbers can opt to ride the rest of the way down, or continue to hike.
Ride, Climb and/or Ski to Summit (Ski down)
Cable cars, chair lifts, and snowcat rides get you to about 15,000 feet. Acclimatization days are spent skiing/snowboarding the spring corn in the Baksan Valley. Summit day, you climb or ski (on skins) from 15,400 feet to summit and then, if snow conditions cooperate, you descend on skis/snowboard for more than 6,000 vertical feet on mostly moderate slopes of less than 30 degrees, encountering powder snow, ice, breakable crust, and spring corn.
Ride Up – Climb to the Summit – Ride down
There are companies, particularly in Russia, that will rent expedition clothing and gear to you (including ice axe and crampons). They claim that no prior mountaineering experience is necessary, and that your responsibility on the mountain will be to participate (usually over the course of a week) in acclimatizing training hikes, where they teach you how to use your gear. As much as possible, however, elevation will be gained and lost using cable cars, chair lifts, and snowcats. Summit day, you will take a snowcat ride to Pastukhova Rocks (15,400 feet) climb to the West Summit (18,510 feet), and then descend to Diesel Hut, where you can take the tram back to the valley. This sounds easier than it actually is, however, because the altitude is extreme and weather, snow and ice conditions, your physical fitness, your health, your guides and teammates, and mechanical failure are all part of the equation.
Heli-ski $3800 to $4500 (8 days/7 nights January to April)
The Caucasus Range and Mt. Elbrus region are ski vacation destinations. There are a number of heli-ski companies that service Mt. Elbrus, but only one claims to take people to either the Western or Eastern summit. They further claim that from the top, you can ski all the way to the bottom in winter, and descend to an altitude of about 13,123 feet in the summer.
Landing a helicopter on the summit would be problematic due to weather and wind, and once there, you would likely find windblown ice and the steepest sections of the mountain. Other heli-ski tours routinely land in the Saddle between the two summits, however, as well as other gorgeous locations in the area.
Tips and Gratuities: $250+
- $100+ per guide is typical for Western guides.
- $150 total is typical for all your Russian guides.