Titan of the Caucasus

A photo essay from the ascent of Mount Elbrus

Feature type Story

Read time 10 min read

Published Jun 18, 2020

Photographer David Pickford

David Pickford Writer, editor, and photographer based in the UK, David is an expert climber and a pioneer of standup paddling as an expedition-distance watersport. He was previously editor-in-chief of Climb magazine and is editor emeritus of BASE magazine. More: davidpickford.com

Story & Photography | David Pickford

The view from the higher west summit of Mount Elbrus, looking down towards the slightly lower east summit.

The view from the higher west summit of Mount Elbrus, looking down towards the slightly lower east summit.

At 5642m, Mount Elbrus is the highest peak in the Caucasus, the range of high alpine peaks that extends from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea and across the territory of three different countries: Russia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Situated entirely within Russia, Elbrus is a remarkable mountain in several respects. It’s the tenth most prominent peak in the world; prominence measures the height of a mountain relative to its lowest contour line.

Unlike the other high peaks in the main chain of the Caucasus, Elbrus is a dormant volcano, with a highly distinctive twin-peaked summit. The last significant eruption was only two thousand years ago. And the mountain has a very colourful history, including a brief period of Nazi control between 1942 and 1943, when the 1st Mountain Division of the Wehrmacht occupied the entire area. At one point, the swastika flag was raised from the summit, much to the alleged rage of Hitler, who apparently believed it was a publicity stunt. Before long, the Red Army prevailed in the Battle of the Caucasus, and the peak and surrounding area fell back into Soviet control in 1943-44.

An incoming storm above advance camp at North Hut.

An incoming storm above advance camp at North Hut.

A Soviet-era ‘Shishiga’ truck crossing the swollen river en-route to Elbrus north side basecamp.

A Soviet-era ‘Shishiga’ truck crossing the swollen river en-route to Elbrus north side basecamp.

At one point, the swastika flag was raised from the summit, much to the alleged rage of Hitler.

The GAZ 66 4WD truck was one of the main cargo vehicles for the infantry of the Russian army, and is still widely employed in former Soviet countries. Like many Soviet produced 4WD vehicles, it is renowned for its strength and ease of maintenance.

A clearing storm over Hathansu Meadow, the location of Elbrus north side basecamp. The lower slopes of Elbrus are used by local herders for mixed grazing for cows, goats, sheep and horses.

A clearing storm over Hathansu Meadow, the location of Elbrus north side basecamp. The lower slopes of Elbrus are used by local herders for mixed grazing for cows, goats, sheep and horses.

The higher west summit of Mount Elbrus appears through swirling afternoon cloud above high camp at North Hut. From here, it’s still 1900 metres to the top.

The higher west summit of Mount Elbrus appears through swirling afternoon cloud above high camp at North Hut. From here, it’s still 1900 metres to the top.

Today, Elbrus is a popular mountain due to its status as one of the Seven Summits, and also because – if climbed from its more challenging northern side – it provides a full scale, expedition style mountain adventure that can be completed in less than two weeks. Climbing Elbrus from the north, though, is much more akin to being in the Andes or the Himalaya than in the European Alps. At the same time, the lack of any seriously technical sections means it can be attempted by any physically fit mountaineer familiar with climbing at altitude, basic rope skills, and some experience of glacier travel.

Looking down across Oulloulok glacier towards basecamp in stormy light from high camp at North Hut.

Looking down across Oulloulok glacier towards basecamp in stormy light from high camp at North Hut.

From the north, the sheer size of Mount Elbrus is intimidating at first. From base camp at Hathansu Meadow at just 2500m, the twin summits are clearly visible more than 3000 metres above: they seem a very long away indeed. The summit day itself is a long and arduous one. It’s circa 1900 metres from the high camp at North Hut to the summit, and 1900 metres down again. That’s 3800 metres – or 12,500 feet – of ascent and descent

Looking west across Oulloulok glacier towards the lesser peaks of the western Russian Caucasus in late afternoon light.

Looking west across Oulloulok glacier towards the lesser peaks of the western Russian Caucasus in late afternoon light.

Whatever your reasons for climbing Elbrus, whether it’s part of a Seven Summits quest or your first attempt at a peak in the Greater Ranges, or just because you want to climb it for its own sake, the experience of being high on this massive mountain is simply unforgettable. On a clear day on the upper slopes of Elbrus, the main chain of the Caucasus stretches away beyond the horizon to the east, south, and west. Strong sunlight reflects off the vast icefields and hanging glaciers. An occasional crow might drift past on a thermal; other than your fellow climbers, these solitary birds are the only signs of life you’re likely to see up there. Any climber, whatever their experience, is likely to be very much alive on this immense yet surprisingly accessible mountain.

Climbing Elbrus from the north is much more akin to being in the Andes or the Himalaya than in the European Alps.

Looking east across the high Caucasus from the slopes of the Bourbzalitchiran glacier.

Looking east across the high Caucasus from the slopes of the Bourbzalitchiran glacier.

Among the rocks just beyond the climbers here, the remains of a Russian military Mi-8 helicopter that crashed here whilst attempting to land in July 2010 are clearly visible. The pilots escaped unharmed and much of the wreckage was removed, but the rotor blades and some other debris remains on the mountain.

Silence and light, sun and shadow: the shifting moods of the mountain are a constant companion whilst climbing Mount Elbrus.

Silence and light, sun and shadow: the shifting moods of the mountain are a constant companion whilst climbing Mount Elbrus.

The photographs in this article were all taken during an expedition David Pickford was leading for Jagged Globe in August 2019.

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