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FAQ

Elbrus difficulty grade

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My collection of routes to Elbrus is here

What is the difficulty grade of the Mount Elbrus climbing route?

Восхождение на Эльбрус по Южному склону
Climbing Mount Elbrus by the south slope

According to the Russian classification of the difficulty of the climbing routes, the difficulty grade (category) of the Mount Elbrus routes:

  • West Elbrus by the south slope - 1b R.G. /PD- (UIAA),
  • East Elbrus by the north slope - 2a R.G. /PD (UIAA),
  • East Elbrus along the eastern lava flow - 2b R.G. / PD+ (UIAA),
  • West Elbrus along the West slope - 3a R.G. / AD- (UIAA).

Ascent to the west Summit of Mount Elbrus from the Saddle. The photo shows an avalanche that broke the trail.
Ascent to the west Summit of Mount Elbrus from the Saddle. The photo shows an avalanche that broke the trail.

However, the concept of the category of difficulty on the example of the Mount Elbrus routes does not at all reflect the characteristic features of the route, it gives only a general idea of some abstract complexity. The category of difficulty, according to the current classification system, does not reflect either the specifics of the route or its seasonality.

Climbing Mount Elbrus by the East slope
Climbing Mount Elbrus by the East slope

You can read more about the features and difficulties of climbing Elbrus in my article on this issue.

Here I would talk about the categories of difficulty of climbing routes, without delving into the specifics of any individual mountain.

A huge number of people on the southern slope of Mount Elbrus
A huge number of people on the southern slope of Mount Elbrus

Let's see what is the category or grade of difficulty of a mountain route or peak. First, you need to understand that the concept of "difficulty" of the alpine climbing route is the extremely subjective thing. In the Russian classification system, which has flowed to us almost unchanged from its Soviet predecessor, the category of difficulty is assessed by the total length of the climbing sections, their complexity, the need to use protection, the average climbing time, etc.

Ascent to the west Summit of Mount Elbrus from the summit Plateau
Ascent to the west Summit of Mount Elbrus from the summit Plateau

Literally, the following factors determine the category of difficulty of a climbing route (quote from RISK.RU):

“To routes 1B k.t. (Russian Grade)/ PD- include routes of ascents and traverses of rocky, snow-ice and combined nature to mountain tops of the altitude from 500 m to 5000 m above sea level, with an average length of 500 m, and an average steepness of 10-25 °.

The routes mainly consist of the very easy sections, but should include 20-30 m or more sections of grade I - easy difficulty or have several short (3-15 m) rock sections of grade II - easy difficulty, or 80-100 m and more snow-ice sections of grade I - easy difficulty, or have short (30-40 m) sections of grade II - easy difficulty. The duration of the route should be from 1.5 to 5-8 hours. In case of mass ascents, you may need stationary belay.

Exercises for those who lack the climbing difficulty on the Elbrus route. North slope
Exercises for those who lack the climbing difficulty on the Elbrus route. North slope

All these factors are not objective. A simple example: I have repeatedly seen people for whom the movement on a slope of 15 degrees was a serious difficulty, although for a normal person this slope should not cause problems when moving. Accordingly, the complexity of the terrain in this case cannot be assessed objectively - it depends on the physical fitness and coordination of the climber.

Climbing Mount Elbrus by the east slope. Slope steepness is approx. 10-15°
Climbing Mount Elbrus by the east slope. Slope steepness is approx. 10-15°

Next is the approximate climbing time. The speed record for climbing Mount Elbrus is only 48 minutes, despite the fact that the average climbing time is more than 8 hours. Such a difference tells us that the route climbing time cannot be a criterion for assessing its difficulty. As well as the need for belay - for some climbers, the protection will be required on the easiest sections, and others can move so comfortably and confidently on the more difficult terrain that there is no need to organize any protection.

Stormy wind is one of the particular difficulties or dangers when climbing Mount Elbrus
Stormy wind is one of the particular difficulties or dangers when climbing Mount Elbrus

The issue of the classification of mountain climbing routes is a very complex and often controversial topic.

For example, in rockclimbing everything is simple and clear with difficulty categories in any classification system. The rockclimbing route is evaluated by a quorum of climbers and has a fairly accurate estimate of difficulty, which is well felt with experience at the level of half of the category (+/-). The difficulty rating of a rockclimbing routes does not change depending on the weather, air temperature, physical condition of the rockclimber - agree, no one climbs the rocks in poor health, or in inappropriate weather or season.

Comparative table of different systems for assessing the difficulty in rockclimbing. The French system is adopted in Russia and the most European countries.
Comparative table of different systems for assessing the difficulty in rockclimbing. The French system is adopted in Russia and the most European countries.

With the alpine climbing routes in the mountains, everything is more difficult. A simple example. Technical climbing routes of a rocky class, to the peaks of only 500-600 m high, can have an alpine (not to be confused with rockclimbing) category AD- the same as mount Elbrus route from the east, which altitude is 5642 m.

Climbing a rockclimbing alpine route of the category AD- in the El Paraiso National park in Northern Italy
Climbing a rockclimbing alpine route of the category AD- in the El Paraiso National park in Northern Italy

These routes will not have vertical walls and steep ice slopes, but there will be a risk of fall and the need to organize basic rope protection. On the Mount Elbrus route of the same category, there are such complicating factors as lack of oxygen, low temperature, unstable weather.

Climbing Mount Elbrus
Climbing Mount Elbrus

Moreover, these factors cannot be planned and taken into account in an objective assessment of the complexity of the alpine climbing route within a single system. As an example, I can cite the ascent to one of the rocks, which is popular for climbers, in the Crimea. The height of the "Tower" rock is only 610 m above sea level, but the category of difficulty, according to the present classification, is the same as that of the route to Mount Elbrus - PD+.

Comparison table of international alpine climbing (mountaineering) categories
Comparison table of international alpine climbing (mountaineering) categories

The category of difficulty of the alpine climbing route is given approximately, without specifying seasonality, altitude and weather conditions. In addition, there are numerous regional features that affect the complexity of the route - the characteristic features of the relief, the specifics of weather conditions - these factors cannot be taken into account in the existing classification system, although often they determine the actual complexity of the route.

Climbing Mount Elbrus from the north - the strongest wind instantly blocks the trail with snow
Climbing Mount Elbrus from the north - the strongest wind instantly blocks the trail with snow

On the example of Mount Elbrus, I can say that the complexity of the route can change dramatically depending on the season and conditions. The snow slope mentioned above, with a steepness of 15˚, does not present any difficulties during the summer season. But it can turn into the most difficult and very dangerous technical obstacle in the winter state, when the wind blows snow off the slope and bare hard ice is exposed.

Bottle ice on Mount Elbrus, very hard and polished by snow and wind
Bottle ice on Mount Elbrus, very hard and polished by snow and wind

Such a spread of actual difficulty within one declared category makes it almost impossible to evaluate and compare mountain climbing results, for example, when trying to organize mountaineering competitions. The variability of climbing conditions, countless factors that can change the complexity of the climbing obstacles in a wide range, do not allow mountaineering to be treated as a competitive sport.

East route of Mount Elbrus - view from the high camp 3900 m.
East route of Mount Elbrus - view from the high camp 3900 m.

In order to compete in something, the obstacle or sports facility must be the same for all competitors - without this it is impossible to evaluate the results of the competition.

Thus, one should be guided by the declared category of the route complexity only in the most general terms. It should be added that regardless of the category of difficulty, any mountain route poses a serious danger in case of insufficient tactical and technical training of the participants, overestimation of their strength.

On top of Mount Elbrus with a team of Ukrainian climbers
On top of Mount Elbrus with a team of Ukrainian climbers

There is a phenomenon in Russian mountaineering that is not characteristic of the world practice of mountain climbing. This trend is not found in other countries, except for Russia - it is a "pursuit of categories" or "climbing for a checkbox." The origin of this phenomenon is rooted in the Soviet past, when for the achievements in any sport, the citizens of the USSR received significant bonuses in the form of the free tickets and paid vacations, promotion in the social hierarchy and even career achievements.

A stand dedicated to the achievements of Soviet mountaineering at the M. Khergiani Museum in Georgia
A stand dedicated to the achievements of Soviet mountaineering at the M. Khergiani Museum in Georgia

For the convenience of regulation and management, an active form of leisure, popular all over the world - mountaineering, was classified in the USSR as a sport, with the assignment of all related attributes - the creation of management organizations, classification of routes and achievements, holding competitions, awarding regalia, etc.

In the USSR, sports and tourism were completely controlled and regulated by the state
In the USSR, sports and tourism were completely controlled and regulated by the state

Psychologically, the dependence of a Soviet person on the availability of various documents and regalia was extremely high - social status in the Soviet Union was documented and often had no connection with the actual achievements. Remnants of this bureaucratic system can be observed in the modern system of Russian mountaineering.

At least 5 generations of Soviet people grew up in awe of badges and regalia
At least 5 generations of Soviet people grew up in awe of badges and regalia

Despite the fact that the presence of confirmed regalia in mountaineering today does not bring any practical bonuses to the citizens, many of them, nevertheless, strive to climb not so much mountain peaks as climb the formal ladder of categories.

Famous Soviet climber Mikhail Khergiani and his collection of mountaineering regalia
Famous Soviet climber Mikhail Khergiani and his collection of mountaineering regalia

This approach to the mountain climbing can be called formalism. In my opinion, this is one of the three incorrect and dangerous motivations in mountaineering, often leading to the saddest consequences: formalism, heroism and vanity.

Scheme of the formation of the category of difficulty in mountaineering, depending on the various factors
Scheme of the formation of the category of difficulty in mountaineering, depending on the various factors

Returning to the question of the categories of Mount Elbrus routes, it must be added that all the routes to this mountain, without any pronounced technical difficulties, are very physically difficult, long and tactically complex ascent lines.

Climbing Mount Elbrus
Climbing Mount Elbrus

Physical loads for climbing Mount Elbrus do not correspond to the declared categories, which reflect only the absence of technical difficulties. But, if the category of the route is more important to you than the Mountain, in this case it is better to opt for much simpler and safer routes that do not require as much effort as climbing Mount Elbrus.

The author of the texts and photographs Alex Trubachev
Your professional mountain guide for Mount Elbrus and other mountain climbing routes in Caucasus

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