‘The weather deteriorated catastrophically’ Five climbers die in blizzard on Russia’s Mount Elbrus, 14 others remain in hospital
Five climbers died after getting lost in a blizzard on Russia’s Mount Elbrus on Thursday, September 23. The group, which consisted of tourists and several professional guides, was at an altitude of 5,400 meters (over 17,700 feet) when weather conditions began to deteriorate severely. Search and rescue workers found the surviving 14 climbers and brought them down the mountain over the course of several hours. All of the survivors were hospitalized and eight of them are in moderately serious condition. Regional investigators announced on Friday that a criminal case has been launched on charges of rendering services that do not meet safety requirements.
A group of 19 mountain climbers got lost on the slopes of Russia’s Mount Elbrus on Thursday afternoon. Located in the North Caucasus region, the dormant volcano is Europe’s highest peak at 5,642 meters (18,510 feet). The climbers got caught in a snowstorm while at an altitude of 5,400 meters (over 17,700 feet).
Most of the group members were tourists from across Russia, not professional climbers, though they were accompanied by several professional guides. They called for help just after 5:00 p.m. local time, due to worsening weather conditions, the Emergency Situations Ministry’s Kabardino-Balkaria branch reported.
According to the emergency services, several dozen rescue workers began searching for the missing climbers in the “most difficult conditions” — in a blizzard with strong winds, sleet, low visibility, and temperatures as low as -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degree Fahrenheit).
The organizer of the climb, Denis Alimov, claimed that the group initially consisted of four professional climbers and 16 tourists. According to him, the climbers reached a plateau located above the saddle of Elbrus around 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, at which point one woman became ill. An assistant guide began descending to a lower altitude with the woman, while the rest of the group continued their ascent to the mountain's peak. One eyewitness, a guide leading another group, said that the climbers were “very delayed” during the ascent.
The assistant guide who helped the woman down the mountain said that the storm began about half an hour after they parted ways with the group. “Perhaps the pressure dropped sharply, because the woman got worse even with the drop in altitude. She lost consciousness and died in the arms of the guide within an hour [sometime between 11:00 a.m. and noon],” Alimov explained. The assistant guide waited for the group until 3:00 p.m. — when they didn’t return, he contacted the base camp, began descending the mountain on a snowcat, and called the Emergency Situations Ministry.
During the descent, another member of the group broke his leg. Around this time, “the weather deteriorated catastrophically,” Alimov said. Musician Dmitry Parakhin from Yekaterinburg, who was part of the group of climbers, told the news site E1.ru that they got lost on the mountainside. “We got lost. We fell down, flew 100 meters on [hard] ice, we couldn’t stick an ice axe in any way. Our guy broke his leg. We immediately sent an SOS message and our coordinates to the Emergencies Ministry. We waited two hours and [then] carried the guy down,” Parakhin said.
The guide decided to divide up the group three ways, in order to separate those who walked slower from those who were moving faster. “As we descended, two more people in one of the groups died. But the decision to split up was the right one, otherwise there would have been more casualties,” maintained the climb’s organizer, Denis Alimov. The guides who accompanied the group sustained severe frostbite and injuries. “One of them practically went blind, he was heavily covered with snow,” Alimov said.
According to the Emergencies Ministry, five climbers died on Mount Elbrus during the blizzard: four women and one man. According to preliminary reports, all of the victims died of hypothermia. Rescue workers found the remaining 14 climbers and took them down to the Azau valley below, where they handed them over to medical workers. The search and rescue operation was deemed completed at 2:45 a.m. local time.
All of the surviving climbers were hospitalized. At least three people were unable to make the descent on their own (one suffered fractures and two others were unconscious), so rescue workers transported them by snowcat. According to a list of the victims published by Mash, two of the professional guides are among the injured. Eight of the climbers are in moderately serious condition.
On Friday, the Russian Investigative Committee’s regional branch announced that it had opened a criminal case on charges of rendering services that do not meet safety standards.
Translation by Eilish Hart