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Which is difficulty grade of Mount Elbrus route?

According to the Russian classification of the complexity of the mountain climbing routes, the category of difficulty of Mount Elbrus South route is 1b, North route 2a, East route 2b, West route - 3a - which roughly corresponds to the international category PD / PD + / AD- (UIAA).

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


More information about the features and difficulties of climbing Mount Elbrus can be found in my article on this issue. And here I will talk about mountaineering difficulty categories, without delving into the features of any particular mountain. Let's figure out what is the category of complexity (difficulty) of a mountain route. First, you need to understand that the concept of “complexity” of the route is extremely subjective. In the Russian classification system, which flowed almost unchanged from the Soviet predecessor, the category of difficulty is estimated by the total length of the pitches, complexity, the need to use protection, average climbing time, etc.

Literally, the following factors are determining the category of difficulty of a climbing route in Russian classification system (quote from RISK.RU):

“To the category of 1B are related the climbing and traverse routes of rocky, snow-ice and combined nature to the mountain summits from 500 m to 5000 m above sea level, with an average length of 500 m, and an average steepness of 10–25 °. Routes mainly consist of sections of very easy difficulty, but should include 20-30 m or more sections difficulty or have several short (3-15 m) sections of simple difficulty, or 80-100 m and more snow-ice sections of easy difficulty, or to have short (30-40 m) sections of average difficulties. The duration of climbing of such route is from 1.5 to 5-8 hours. For mass ascents, the fixed protection may be needed.”

All these factors are not objective. Just an example: I have repeatedly seen people for whom walking on a slope with a steepness of 15˚ was a serious difficulty, although for a normal man this slope should not cause problems. Accordingly, the complexity of the terrain in this case cannot be estimated objectively - it depends on your physical fitness and coordination. Next is the climbing time of the route. The speed record of climbing Mount Elbrus is 48 minutes, despite the fact that the average climbing time is more than 8 hours. This wide time frame tells us that the climbing time of a route cannot be a criterion for assessing its complexity. As well as the need for protection - for some climbers, protection will be required on the easiest pitches, while some people can move comfortably and confidently on a more complex terrain without any reason to arrange protection.

The issue of classifying mountain climbing routes is a very controversial topic. If, for example, in the rockclimbing categories of difficulty, everything is clear in any classification system - the grade of a rockclimbing route is estimated by the climbers quorum and has an accurate level of difficulty, which can clearly be felt at the level of half of the category (+/-). The difficulty grade of a rockclimbing route does not change due to weather, air temperature, your physical condition, etc. - you must admit that no one climbs the rocks in bad physical shape, in inappropriate weather or season.

With the alpine climbing routes in the mountains all is becoming more difficult. An example. Climbing technical alpine climbing routes to peaks with an altitude of only 500-600 m can have mountaineering category (not to be confused with the rockclimbing grade) 2b - the same as Mount Elbrus East route, which altitude is 5642 m. There will be no vertical walls on these routes or steep ice slopes, but there will be a risk of fall and the need for basic protection. On Mount Elbrus, in the same category, there are totally different complicating factors such as lack of oxygen, low temperature, unstable weather. Moreover, these complicating factors cannot be planned and taken into account in an objective assessment of the complexity of the route. As an example, one can climb the “Tower” peak in one of the most popular climbing sectors in the Crimea. The summit of the “Tower” peak is just 610 m above sea level, but according to the classification system the category of complexity of this route is the same as that of Elbrus - 2b.

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

On the example of Mount Elbrus, I can say that the complexity of the route can radically change depending on the season and weather conditions. The snow slope mentioned above with an incline of 15˚, which does not pose any difficulties during the summer season, can turn into a very difficult and very dangerous technical obstacle in the winter state when the wind blows snow off the slope and exposes the bare hard ice.

Such a wide range of actual complexity within the frame of one declared category makes it virtually impossible to evaluate and compare results of climbing achievement, for example, when trying to organize mountaineering competitions. The variability of the route conditions, countless factors that can change the difficulty of the climbing obstacles, does not allow mountaineering to be regarded as a competitive sport. In order to compete in something, the obstacle object must be the same for all rivals - without this, it is impossible to evaluate the results of the competition.

Thus, one should be guided by the declared category of the mountain route complexity only in the most general terms. It must 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 participants, overestimation of their experience level.

In Russian mountaineering there is a phenomenon that is not characteristic for the other countries mountaineering practice. Such a trend does not occur in countries other than Russia - it is “the pursuit of categories” or “climbing in the check box”. The origin of this phenomenon is rooted in the Soviet past, when for achievements in any sports, Soviet citizens received significant bonuses in the form of free vacation tickets, promotion in the social hierarchy and even career achievements. For the convenience of regulation and management, this form of outdoor activity, popular all over the world - mountaineering, was ranked among the sports in the USSR, with the assignment of all the associated attributes - creation of management organizations, classification of the routes and achievements, organizing competitions, assignment of regalia, etc. Psychologically, the dependence of the Soviet person on the availability of various documents and regalia was extremely high - the social status of the person was documented and, often, had no connection with his actual personal achievements. The survivals of this bureaucratic system can be observed in the modern system of Russian mountaineering. Despite the fact that the availability of the confirmed regalia in mountaineering does not bring any practical bonuses to Russian citizens today, many of them nonetheless strive to climb not so much to the mountain peaks as to climb the formal ladder of categories and check the boxes in their “Alpine climbing book”. Such approach to the mountain climbing is called "formalism." In my opinion, this is one of three incorrect and dangerous motivations in mountaineering, often leading to the saddest consequences: formalism, heroism and vanity.

Returning to the question of the categories of the Mount Elbrus routes, it is necessary to add that all the routes to this mountain, without any expressed technical difficulties, are very long lines, difficult both physically and tactically. Climbing Mount Elbrus, you expose yourself to the physical load which does not correspond to the declared categories, which reflect only the absence of technical difficulties. But, if the route category is more important to you than the specific mountain, it is better to opt for much simpler and safer routes that do not require as much effort as climbing Mount Elbrus.

Our Principles

AlexClimb Rule #1 - Safety First

From the very beginning of our activity, here nearly 16 years, the first Principle of work of School of mountaineering and rock-climbing of MCS AlexClimb is the Safety Priority. On the basis of this Principle all process of training is based, all programs and rounds are developed and carried out only within this main principle. We consider that at professional approach to development of programs, at personal discipline and correctly put motivation - occupations by mountaineering and rock-climbing are COMPLETELY safe. And from the return - all troubles and accidents in our sport come from nonprofessionalism, from ignorance or neglect by elementary standards of safety, from irrational motivation, from revaluation of own forces and opportunities. All these prerequisites we COMPLETELY EXCLUDE in our work - ours Rock-climbing, Ice climbing and Mountaineering are based on one Principle - the Safety Priority. In rock-climbing, mountaineering and ice climbing, the Priority of Safety of MCS AlexClimb-is your personal security and comfort irrespective of, than we are engaged - we train muscles and we work technology of the movement in the sports hall and on the rock climbing wall, we make the way through snowstorm to top or we relax on golden sand of the Caribbean beach after hot day of trainings on rocks. The Safety priority - the main credo of School of mountaineering and rock-climbing of MCS AlexClimb.

AlexClimb Rule #2 - Leave No Trace

Closely interacting with Nature, working with the active programs in mountains, woods, lakes and rivers, we perfectly understand the importance of carefull and respectfull bahavior towards the Nature, for its resources. From the very beginning of our outdoor-activity we adopted rules of  Leave No Trace technique - the standard of behavior of the person accepted in all the civilized world in relation to environment and especially - to the wild nature. After all on the relation of people to the nature near which they exist, itself can draw dalekoidushchy conclusions on the relation of these people to... Where and as we didn't travel - we don't reserve any garbage, we try to reduce whenever possible our influence on environment to a minimum. We clear earlier zagryazyonny tourist parking of the left garbage, we take out and we take out to utilization places that to us other people left there. We consider that only thus, at personal individual consciousness of each citizen, each tourist, climber or autotraveller, we will be able to keep the nature surrounding us in its state, natural, suitable for life, - in it pledge of the healthy future for ourselves and our children.

AlexClimb Rule #3 - Sober Concious

The position of AlexClimb Mountain and rockclimbing School regarding healthy lifestyle is quite clear - we consider that only sober consciousness is capable to fill sincere emotions,  to sympathize, to enjoy life in all its variety. Bright various enjoyable life is possible only on condition of keeping the absolute sobriety and purity of consciousness. Any way of obscuring our perception of reality is intended to do harm to our consciousness and bring harm to our physical health, to replace the true values by false ones, to destroy us physically - to turn us into flabby, weak, senseless, gray herd with empty hazy eyes. We don't force anybody to our point of view, everyone has a God's gift of making his own choice and to destroy himself if that is what he wants... But in AlexCilimb Mountain Climbing School we accept quite certain and very simple set of rules: neither alcohol, nor drugs.