Why do so many die on Elbrus, the bane of white-collar novices?

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The highest mountain in Russia and Europe (5,642 m) nonetheless has a reputation as a “simple” climb for those without mountaineering experience, including office workers, retirees and teenagers. Why, then, do so many never return?

On the night of Sept. 23, 2021, a group of 19 people headed for the Sedlovina Pass on Mount Elbrus, located 5,416 meters above sea level, the starting point for an attempt at the summit. The wind was strong, but the weather was considered “stable”. The organizer of the ascent, Denis Alimov, would later say: “We walked at night, because there was a weather window. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the only chance [to climb the summit] in the coming five days.”

With just 100 meters left to the top, the conditions changed dramatically: the wind intensified, the pressure dropped. One of the group, manicurist Anna Makarova, took a turn for the worse. She was taken down to the pass, but despite the loss of altitude, her condition worsened. She lost consciousness and died an hour later in the arms of the guide. “The guide gave her a sniff of ammonia and tea. But nothing helped,” Alimov said.

Meanwhile, the main group continued the ascent. But soon the visibility dropped to half a meter, and thick snow began to fall. At the same time, the temperature dropped to -20 degrees Celsius, and the wind speed increased to 40-70 meters per second. Before reaching the peak, the group, roped together, started to descend – unsuccessfully, as it turned out. "We got lost. We slipped and flew about 100 meters over the glassy ice. Try as we might, we couldn’t stick an ice-pick in it. One guy broke his leg. We immediately fired off an SOS message with our coordinates to the rescue center. We waited two hours and then [without waiting for help] carried the guy down,” said musician Dmitry Parakhin, who was part of the group.

Rescue team

The delay was fatal. While the injured leg was being stabilized as best as could be, the other climbers began to freeze. On the mountain, the walkie-talkie was useless. It was nearly evening by the time contact could be made with the rescuers. That was done by the guide who had returned to the pass with the unwell woman. Two people passed out and died on the spot. Two more were stretchered away by the rescue team. The other guides suffered severe frostbite and injuries, one of them practically went blind after getting caught in a snowstorm.

Climbing Elbrus is deceptively simple. It requires no particular climbing skills. As long you don’t stray off route, you don’t have to overcome rocky sections requiring carabiners, hooks and hanging ropes – you just go up and that's it. For this reason, Elbrus is many people’s first (and last) mountain. Office workers go up it as a team-building activity, as do retirees and teenagers. Dozens of people from all over the world make the attempt every day. For tour companies and professional guides, business is booming. That said, the mountain claims an average of 15-20 lives every year, which speaks of a rather more dangerous climb than commonly perceived.

“A guy with no legs climbed it. Doesn’t that tell you something?”

There are several routes up Elbrus: the mountain can be ascended from all sides, while the easiest route runs through the village of Terskom, from the south. This is the path taken by the overwhelming majority of expeditions (including the ill-fated one in September of this year).

“Climbing Elbrus is considered easy, primarily because of the cable cars,” says Alexander Yakovenko, a climber and Red Fox Elbrus Race judge. The cable car reaches a height of 3,850 meters, that is, you can cover more than halfway sitting in a chair. And if you want, you can climb another kilometer, up to the 4,800-meter mark, by snowmobile. So, in fact, there’s not that much legwork involved. Yakovenko took his daughter to the top when she was 14 years old.

In conversation with Russia Beyond, Alexander Sukharev, owner of the company Elbrus Climbing (previously named No Fear), told Russia Beyond insisted that the mountain is “easy,” with no complex technical elements or avalanche zones. “At least not on the routes that tourists use. There are avalanche zones only in the valleys where snow collects, and all avalanches occur in winter and early spring. But this has nothing to do with climbing. Elbrus is in the 1B difficulty category, meaning that practically anyone, if healthy, can climb to the top without special training.”

Sukharev mentions a guy missing both legs, as well as two clients, one of whom was 80, the other even older, who recently made the ascent. “The one who was older did it with oxygen equipment, the 80-year-old without. Doesn’t that tell you something?”

Viktor Saleev, a 29-year-old marketing consultant from Kaliningrad, also climbed Elbrus in August last year as part of a commercial tour. “I went to there for the adventure, the hiking aesthetics and the sporting challenge,” he says. Despite his inexperience, he chose the eastern route for its "sportiness", since he wanted to make the journey there and back on his own two feet. “It’s considered wild, because there are no shelters, cable cars or snowmobiles, and the entire path is walked in full gear,” says Viktor.

He understood well that he would have to carry a 35-kg backpack for all ten days. Six months before the ascent, he started cardio training at the gym. “I knew what to expect. But when travel agencies claim the route is suitable for people in any physical shape, it’s misleading,” he says. “In our group, everyone did it on foot, but some were hurting and at the limit of their endurance.”

"It’s hell!"

In recent years, the number of Elbrus victims has been growing, which professionals put down to the popularity of mountain tourism and the absence of climbing restrictions. Whereas in Soviet times, would-be Elbrus climbers had to demonstrate a certain level of expertise, expElbrus, now the flow of people is uncontrolled, as is the state of their health and physical capabilities.

Not everyone truly understands about altitude, either. Yakovenko recalls that test pilots automatically get fed oxygen at 3,000 meters. “At this altitude, there’s half as much oxygen as at sea level. Can you imagine the effect at 5,000 meters? Many bodies simply cannot withstand such a load,” he says, adding that people should know when to stop and not push themselves for fear of the shame of being defeated by an “easy mountain.”

In May of this year, Russia Beyond correspondent Nikolai Litovkin was another who climbed Elbrus along the easiest, southern route, with overnight stays in hotels along the way. Half of the group were boxers, guys in good physical shape, used to regular competition. “We had the idea of climbing to the top, setting up a makeshift ring there, and having a fight. I do lots of sports and love a challenge, but I didn’t know that such high-altitude hikes amplify all your ailments,” he says.

After the first two days of 15-km acclimatization walks in the Elbrus region, Nikolai felt the strain on his knee cartilage – in his words, “my legs gave up.” Another boxer suffered from mountain sickness at 4,800 meters. He left the lodge where they were staying, and decided to go for a walk at night. As a result, he fell into the snow and couldn’t get up. He was found later almost unconscious. Another climber’s body temperature rose to 40 degrees Celsius, accompanied by breathing problems and coughing. As it turned out, he was sick with Covid-19, but didn’t know about it – the symptoms only manifested themselves at altitude. “I thought a tough guy should be able to sweat it out and get to the top. But Elbrus is completely different. Your legs fail or you start hallucinating due to lack of oxygen, I had no idea that could happen. As a result, I stayed at the bottom at the very first staging post,” says Nikolai.

Another factor is the sudden changes in weather. It can alter completely in literally half an hour. Viktor, who made the ascent last year, never reached the summit: “We got hit by a cyclone [blizzard, no visibility, wind up to 50 m/s], which often happens, we managed to climb 5,100 meters during the acclimatization hike, but then the weather deteriorated. We spent several days in our tents at base camp, and then descended.”

TripAdviser, a popular site with reviews of every tourist spot in the world, is full of stories like this: “We were at the western summit of Elbrus in September 2014. <...> At 4,500 meters, the wet snow was joined by a thunderstorm; our clothes, hats and sticks got drenched. Having roped our ice-picks and sticks together, we ran down to the shelter under thunder and lightning. There we met a foreign lady accompanied by a guide who were coming back from an unsuccessful attempt. We asked her how it was up there. She just replied: ‘It’s hell.’”

Amateur guides

All the same, neither mountain sickness nor bad weather should ever cause a death, even on Elbrus. Qualified guides should “insure” against this. And therein lies the problem.

“Unfortunately, these days anyone can claim to be a guide. The situation with Elbrus is a total mess, there are no checks or regulations at all,” complains Sukharev. He says that there are many companies and “private” guides in the Caucasus that are not licensed to work as tour operators or climbing instructors.

“Anyone who climbed Elbrus a couple of times in good weather might think it’s easy and start offering to lead groups up there,” he explains.

According to Sukharev, what happened to the group in which five people died was “the entirely logical outcome”: “They had two tragedies in one campaign, which can’t be a coincidence.” The first death, says Sukharev, had nothing to do with the others, save for one common element: unqualified organizers. He lists the questions that the investigation is sure to ask: why did the guides not have a satellite phone with GPS, just some kind of walkie-talkie? Why did a commercial tour not provide a single oxygen cylinder? Why wasn’t the group turned around when the weather began to deteriorate?

That same night, Sept. 23, there was a group from Elbrus Climbing on the mountain. Sukharev says the forecast should have ruled out any attempt, but the tourists were eager to go for it, largely because other groups were out and about.

“And our guide decided to try, at that moment there was a short weather window. But he’s a professional and known how to assess the situation. He immediately turned the group around when he saw the weather was spoiling. They [other guides] say the weather changed in an instant. There is no such thing in the mountains, there’s no switch,” Sukharev is indignant. “A non-professional guide can’t spot the signs of deteriorating weather, so to him it seems instantaneous.”

Sukharev believes that Anna Makarova would likely have survived had she been given oxygen. “But people carry on choosing cheaper companies, thereby financing future tragedies. It’s bound to happen again,” he warned.

Four days after the death of five tourists on Elbrus, the Russian Investigative Committee (IC) detained the tour organizer, Denis Alimov, who owns the Pyatigorsk-based company Elbrus.Guide. The IC stated that Alimov had pleaded guilty and written a “full confession.” He allegedly said that, when planning the ascent, he made a mistake regarding the month and the weather. Alimov was placed under arrest for two months. Meanwhile, judging by its website, the company continues to assemble groups, already for 2022.

There are many videos on the company’s YouTube channel of Alimov talking about preparing for an ascent, choosing an organizer, how to cure altitude sickness (he recommends cold hibiscus tea), and why oxygen cylinders are a waste of time. “Our team’s opinion on climbing with oxygen is unequivocally negative. Not because it’s bad, it’s okay. But bad in terms of altitude experience. The organism has none, it has no altitude memory,” he says cryptically.

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