Mt. Elbrus made international news for all the wrong reasons in Sept. 2021, when 5 Russian climbers died on their descent from the summit. It was a terrible tragedy and really shook the Elbrus community. We want to start this blog by saying how heartbroken we are for the families of those who died, and hope to honor their memory with the following commentary.
This tragedy highlighted just how dangerous Mt. Elbrus can be in inclement weather. We discussed this tragedy in-depth with multiple local partners, did a lot of listening to and reading of local guides’ thoughts, and wanted to share some take-aways of best practices for staying safe on Europe’s highest peak. Here they are in seven main points:
1. CLIMBER SAFETY
The MAIN goal is NOT to summit, but to come off the mountain SAFELY. When the weather begins to turn bad and your guide makes the call to turn back (even if you are only 100-200 meters from the summit), this is not the time to exercise your rights and refuse your guide’s directives. Your life is more important than summiting! As the old adage goes, “The summit is optional; making it home is mandatory.”
What went wrong: From the information we gathered, the Sept. group continued climbing when it was clear that bad weather was rolling in; this should not have happened.
Takeaway: Value your safety and your group’s safety above reaching the summit.
2. TRUST YOUR GUIDE:
The lead guide must make all final decisions on the mountain. This includes: what time to start your ascent, when to turn back, etc. It is NOT a democracy on the mountain. You need to trust your guide’s judgment and experience. Even if bad weather is forecasted in the afternoon, your guide can decide on an earlier-than-normal wake-up time to summit and descend before bad weather hits, OR postpone the attempted summit to your reserve day. Of course, the weather is unpredictable on the mountain, so be flexible and compliant when the guide makes a decision for the group based on your safety.
What went wrong: Unfortunately, this was the guide’s mistake on this group’s fatal summit. While other groups did ascend and descend safely that same day, this group waited until 4:00 am to start and got caught up in a terrible storm. From what we know, the guide also allowed the group to make the final decision, if they would continue or not, in light of an incoming mountain storm. This should never have happened!
Takeaway: Guides, not climbing groups, should make decisions on the mountain due to their experience & local knowledge. Do extensive research online before choosing your guide or guiding company; have a phone call with them to get answers to your questions. Place a higher value on quality, safety, and experience than on saving money!
3. CLIENT-TO-GUIDE RATIO ON SUMMIT DAY:
There should always be a 3:1 client-to-guide ratio on summit day. This ensures that those who have to turn back before the summit, have a guide to accompany them, and that those who continue their ascent, have plenty of guides to take care of them.
What went wrong: This particular September group had a 4:1 client to guide ratio, i.e. 16 clients with 4 guides. One client turned back early and so a guide accompanied her. This left 15 clients with 3 guides (a 5:1 client to guide ratio!). On the descent, a climber broke her leg, which essentially immobilized her. Two more guides (i.e. 6 guides for 16 clients) with the group could have made a life-saving difference.
Takeaway: A 3:1 client-to-guide ratio is the minimum standard & safety measure for summit day. Make sure the climbing group you book with abides by this. You can add an extra measure of safety and peace of mind by requesting an additional guide on summit day if it would be helpful to your group.
4. TRAIN WELL:
Previous treks or accomplishments do not ensure you’ll have an easy time climbing Mt. Elbrus! Many climbers summit Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa or trek to Everest Base Camp, before coming to Mt. Elbrus. Elbrus is a different experience, including but not limited to: mountaineering vs. trekking, deteriorating weather conditions, common altitude sickness, and using technical skills/equipment such as crampons, an ice axe, and fixed-rope climbing. The weather on Elbrus is also infamous for turning nasty out of nowhere: hurricane-like winds, snowstorms, dense fog, etc.
What went wrong: On this particular day, a brutal snowstorm descended on the group and they severely lost their bearings, compounding their existing problems.
Takeaway: Forget your past accomplishments and train seriously. Adequate physical and mental training is designed to help you make good decisions when conditions are less than ideal. Here are three practical resources we’ve put together to help you prepare well for climbing Mt. Elbrus:
- Comparing a Kilimanjaro Climb and an Elbrus Climb
- Technical Skills needed to climb Mt. Elbrus
- Training Guide for climbing Mt. Elbrus, especially if you live at low altitude
5. QUALITY GUIDES:
Above all else, professionalism and reliability are the most important traits in a guide. Everybody enjoys a guide that is quick to crack jokes, especially in flawless English, and these qualities of course have their place with foreign groups. However, don’t elevate these things above your safety when choosing a guiding company. Professionalism and reliability come from a combination of extensive personal experience guiding on the mountain plus proper training and accreditation.
What went wrong: Two of the four guides on the aforementioned climb were apprentices and not nearly experienced enough, temperament-wise or skills-wise, to handle the situation they fell into.
Takeaway: Prioritize professionalism & reliability when choosing a guide company; choose guides who will value your safety as much as you would!
6. DON’T CLIMB ELBRUS ALONE:
This should go without saying, but not everyone heeds this advice, so we’ll say it: Do not climb Elbrus by yourself! Being accompanied by a local guide is critical on Elbrus. Often when the weather deteriorates, even if people are descending and presumably out of harm’s way, they can get lost in the fog and veer so far off course that they fall into a crevasse, etc. Along with climbing with a local guide, please make sure you register the day of your attempted summit with the local Rescue Services on the mountain, and that the guide has a way to communicate with Rescue Services in case of problems (walkie-talkie, etc.).
What went wrong: The group’s guides did not communicate early enough with Rescue Services to potentially have prevented further deaths. Rescue Services did eventually arrive on the scene, and safely escorted the group survivors back to base camp.
Takeaway: Even if you acclimatize on your own, hire a local guide on summit day. Hiring a reliable local guide/company is the best thing you can do to ascend and descend Elbrus safely.
7. CHEAPER ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER:
Don’t choose your Elbrus guide/operator based on the cheapest price. Ask yourself what things you’re sacrificing to save a few extra dollars: professionalism, guide training & certification, experience, comfort, English language skills, poor customer service, etc. Choose based on experience, reviews, guide qualifications, etc. Is your life really worth that extra $300-$500 you save for choosing one group over another?
Did these seven points connect with you at all? We welcome your questions and input as you process the gravity of climbing a big mountain like Elbrus. For the sake of those who love you, place the highest value on your safety when you climb!