Where Eagles Dare
When Zeus sought to punish Prometheus for giving humans the secret of fire, he chained him to the top of the highest mountain in the ancient world, where his body was picked apart by an eagle. That mythical mountain is still around, the volcano named Mount Elbrus. At 5,553m (18,510 ft.) above sea level, Elbrus is the highest point in Europe and is one of the so-called Seven Summits, the highest points on each of the seven continents. If you’re like most people, climbs up the likes of Mount Everest may be just beyond your reach, but Elbrus can be conquered by relatively inexperienced trekkers who are willing to endure the hardships of high-altitude climbing.
This long-dormant volcano is in Russia, just north of its border with Georgia. Most visitors fly from Moscow to Mineralnye Vody, then take a 4-hour bus ride to Azau, a remote outpost in the shadow of Elbrus. Because of the numerous bureaucratic and security issues involved (including visas, permits, and registrations), most climbers are better off working with an outfitter who can handle the details.
When choosing an outfitter, remember that about 20 people die each year trying to reach the summit of Mount Elbrus, usually due to poorly organized and equipped groups trekking beyond their means. Though little technical mountaineering experience is needed here, some training is required because there are real risks involved—the weather at these altitudes is unstable, temperatures even in summer can be extremely cold, and low oxygen can cause serious health problems. Be sure to ask your outfitter about their safety record.
There are several routes to the top, and the one known as “the normal route” is supported by a cable car and chairlift system, which can shorten the trip to a few hours. It can also get a little crowded in summer, with dozens of peak-baggers making quick ascents. When it comes time to descend, some adventurers break out their touring skis and take a downhill run that’s as unforgettable as it is demanding. Elsewhere in the area, Terskol—known to some as the Chamonix of the Caucasus—boasts a couple of lift systems and plenty of hotels catering to skiers. —ML
Tours: Geographic Bureau, P.O. Box 375, St. Petersburg, Russia ( 7/812/230-5794; www.geographicbureau.com). Alpine Ascents International, 121 Mercer St., Seattle, WA 98109 ( 206/378-1927; www.alpineascents.com).
When to Go: May–Sept.
$$$ Hotel Ozon-Cheget, Cheget Glade ( 7/866/387-1453; www.hotelozon.ru). $$ Hotel Balkaria, Azau Glade ( 7/866/387-1257).