My family of 3 (to include my just-turned-14-year-old son) successfully summited Mount Elbrus on June 2, 2015.
For those who say that climbing Mount Elbrus is “easy,” I am guessing they are comparing it to Everest or K2 or Vinson or some other extreme mountain, because climbing Elbrus is not easy. But it is doable if you hire a good guiding company like we did, are in excellent physical condition, are willing to endure cold, high altitude, exhaustion, and being dirty for a few days. If you are American, you also have to be willing to fill out a Russian Federation visa application that is longer and more intrusive than any college or job application you have ever seen.
If you can put up with all of this, you will be rewarded with seeing an area that is as gorgeous as the Swiss Alps and meeting very kind Russians who will teach you so much, and not just about climbing tall mountains.
My family and I were very apprehensive about going on this trip due to the fact that our government recommends that Americans not go there. In addition, there is not a lot of published information about reputable Elbrus guiding companies.
As it turned out, we chose the absolute best climbing and tour operator, and ended up with the absolute best and most experienced guides on Elbrus.
We also had fantastic weather on summit day, which does not always happen.
Climbing Mount Elbrus is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that should not be missed by anyone who loves the outdoors, a physical challenge, and the opportunity to meet and get to know not just Russians, but people from around the world.
A few tips about the barrels—
The ones the company we were with held up to 12 people. There were 6 wooden bunkbeds with cute floral comforters on them so you didn’t need a sleeping mat. We were lucky that we climbed during low season and our family of 3 had a barrel to ourselves. I think it would be miserable if you had to share the barrel with 11 others! Also, the barrels sometimes have electricity to run an overhead light and electric heater for a couple of hours in the evening. Do not count on this though, ours did not work while we were there. I was a bit worried after our acclimatization hike to Pashtakov Rocks in a snow storm when all of our stuff got wet. But luckily the next day it was sunny and we put things outside, and although there was snow everywhere, our things actually dried!
Toilets. Ours was a very large rectangle cut out of a wood board, surrounded by a shack. Every time I went in, I was terrified of falling in. Additionally, I was so glad there was plenty of snow between the shack and our barrel so that everything came off the bottom of our boots before we entered our barrel.
Water. Our wonderful cook melted snow and boiled it for drinking and cooking. I was concerned we might get sick from it, but none of us did. So don’t worry about it. And there was always plenty of hot and cold water for drinking and filling thermoses.
Food. The food we had at the barrels was fantastic and always a great variety. Even I, a vegetarian, was accomodated.
Summit Day. We happened to get lucky and had great weather on the night scheduled for summit, but the following day, a Russian group at the barrels with us, could not summit due to horrible weather. So you never know.
Our guides said the normal time from the barrels to the top is 12 hours and around 6 to hike down. From the Barrels to Pashtakov Rocks (where most people do an acclimatization hike to) is 4 hours (we made it in 3), and from there to the top is usually 8. But all of this depends on the weather, your conditioning, and if you get altitude sickness.
The snow cat to Pashtakov Rocks cost $600EUROS and the cost is divided among whomever takes it. This cuts off 3-4 hours of walking up to the summit.
You can rent or buy all kinds of excellent equipment in town from various shops. don’t provide any.
We did a short trip and felt we were acclimatized (but we live at 6000 feet)
day 1 arrival
day 2 acclimatization hike
day 3 move to the barrels & hike from there (Don't count on the all the ski lifts operating. The last one to the barrels was closed when we were there so we had to do a 45 minute hike up a steep mountain with our gear in a snowstorm.)
day 4 ice axe, crampon, and climbing harness training
day 5 wake up early and summit
day 6 descend
day 7 hike around the beautiful town
day 8 leave