The history of building a high-mountain hut on the north face of Mt. Elbrus

It is as if there were a natural law which ordained that to achieve this end, to refine the curve of a piece of furniture, or a ship's keel, or the fuselage of an airplane, until gradually it partakes of the elementary purity of the curve of the human breast or shoulder, there must be experimentation of several generations of craftsmen. In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.
Yvon Chouinard, founder of Chouinard Equipment and Patagonia

At the beginning of 2017, Elbrus Tours company assigned us the development and production of a compact and lightweight shelter for their north camp on mount Elbrus.

Located on a moraine, this camp is the last base before climbing the summit.
From here dozens of groups annually begin their ascend to the highest point of Europe. At the same time there are groups sheltering from changeable weather, snow, thunderstorms and piercing hurricane winds at the altitude of 3800 m. Mountain climbers spend 3-4 days in the camp obtaining the necessary high-altitude acclimatization, trekking around and awaiting the appropriate weather for the assault.

The technical project was revised several times during the design and production of the shelter. That led to changes in technology and materials, and therefore, deadlines delay. Anyway, on August 1, 2017 our team of 4 people arrived to Emmanuel glade (2560 m) where an hour later an off-roader was to come, containing 3,048 kg of our ideas and finds in 600 parts of the future shelter.
But let's proceed step by step.

Technical Project
While designing the future hut, we've developed the following basic points of the technical project.
Weight and Dimensions
Weight and dimensions of the structure itself and its elements are defining when building a high-mountain shelter. Small size of the hut allows to establish it on gentle slope. It was decided to choose a convenient diameter of 5.6 meters. The weight of each part should not exceed 23 kg, so it could be delivered not only by helicopter but also carried by porters. Initially, the total weight had to fit the ratio of up to 100 kg per sleeping accommodation. Later, it was decided to insulate the construction, sheath it from the inside and furnish the interior, which made it 1/3 heavier.

Setting-up and Positioning on terrain
The hut is installed on the glacial moraine, where the snow melts by mid / late summer. Base mounting should be simple and within powers of a small group (no large-scale works). However, the hut must be securely attached to the surface in order to withstand strong wind loads from the very first day of installation. For periodic horizontal adjustment in the supporting structure a control mechanism must be provided.
Thermal Insulation
Initially, we didn't plan to insulate the Shelter. Instead, special tents were to be placed inside, dividing it into compartments. But later, when the basic design was ready, this idea was rejected in favor of the classic heat insulation. Since the hut is considered for year-round and any weather use, and at the same time doesn't have a permanent source of heating, the thermal insulation scheme must withstand frequent temperature drops, be resistant to moisture (dew point formation) within the structure and do not lose its qualities for a long time. Meanwhile, the insulation must be as much fireproof as possible.
Door and Windows

A full-size door is needed for comfortable passage and bringing in a medical stretcher. The door should be lightweight, but durable, without gaskets (so it does not freeze over) and warm at the same time. Windows are needed to provide natural light and ventilation. The construction of windows must be storm-resistant. It is necessary to provide the possibility of positioning the door and windows according to the circumstances. The entrance setup must exclude any drafts.

It is necessary to provide ventilation, protected from snow. It should also be widely adjustable in order to accommodate various groups in different temperature and ventilation conditions.

Capacity and Sleeping Accommodations
The hut is meant for one group. Such a group, depending on the season, can be large - up to 16 people. Residents should have the opportunity to store clothing and equipment close to their sleeping places. There should be one isolated compartment and the other sleeping places wall-divided from each other in order to zone the room and allow everyone to coexist in their individual biorhythm.

Public Space
Inside the hut should be an open space where at least six people can change clothes at the same time. Also it is necessary to have a place to hang wet clothes and store shoes.

Storing and Drying Clothes and Equipment
It is necessary to provide a place for storing personal equipment. It is highly desirable to create a personal storage space for each member of the group.

Stop. What does it have to do with philosophy? We are talking about construction works in the mountains, no?
Strange as it may seem, philosophy is the cornerstone of architecture. Only relying on specific principles and rules and exposing certain solutions to logical thinking, one can build something simple and convenient. Below, I will list the main principles that we laid down in the Technical Project designing this high-mountain shelter. They have determined the configuration of the construction, the method of installation and, I hope, will help its future visitors to live comfortably.
1. Eco-friendliness and Durability.
The structure should not disturb the ecosystem. Its appearance on the mountainside among glaciers and stones is a measure of necessity. During construction and use, the rule of minimum harm to the environment must be observed. All materials must be durable, the installation simple, reliable and harmless to nature. The exterior of the building should not disharmonize with the delicate visual balance of the place in which the hut is located.

2. Capacity equal to Infinity.
The more, the better! Ideally made of rubber so that even 5 felt warm. And so that the whole camp could shelter inside, just in case. But it must stand as stone, cause recently one house flew away
Those were the parting words that we received within the technical project. And after rationally thinking through all the details, we decided that it is absolutely within our powers. We calculated the #shelter3800 capacity for one group. It had 16 sleeping places and maybe even more. But at the same time it would be equally warm and comfortable for five.

3. When you live in the mountains you need to see mountains.
Simple truth that is not always observed during the construction of mountain shelters. For high mountains windows are a source of problems and dangers. But windows also reflect our attitude. They are the sunrises and sunsets, light and darkness. They are the source of fresh air and ventilation.

4. Ergonomics.
There is very, very much space for the equipment.
Gear, food, backpack, down jacket, camera, mug, and a hundred more necessary things that accompany us on the route. And each one, just like ourselves, consumes space. Therefore it must be provided.

5. Multifunctionality.
What happens if everything changes in five years? Will it be possible to use the #Shelter3800 as a kitchen, medical unit or maintenance room? Will it really be convenient and safe in a new form? Will we be able to disassemble and move it to a new location?

Developing the power scheme of the Shelter we cut off all the unnecessary, because each kilogram of the construction not only complicated the installation but also «ate» the helicopters fuel. Besides, one of the key features of the future design was the ability to position the Shelter on any type of terrain, especially when the base layer is a moraine that slowly moves downwards. Because of that, in the camp 3800 ones a season they readjust all structures lifting them with jacks and laying stones at the corners to return floor to horizontal position.
Add to this strong winds blowing all year round and sweeping away any poorly secured structure on their way; snow- and thunderstorms and tired climbers with ice-axes and crampons rushing through the weather to the mountain shelter.

When the design and the 3-D model were ready, and the base metal framework assembled, many questions still were to be answered on-the-spot. Therefore, in early June 2017 Sergei Gavrish and his father went up to the future shelter installation site at 3800m in order to clarify all the detailes and to perform a topographic survey of the area.
During the ordinary construction works there are no serious problems with delivering materials. We may think about the fact that something might not fit in the cargo body, but the fate of our construction does not depend on it. We kick ourselves when the materials don't fit into the elevator or can't get through the stairs. But in any case we always have plan B and the ability to bring or buy some extra. In high mountains there is almost no such possibility. If we lack something, then the whole process stops. The nearest tool shop was 100 km away and about 3000 meters below. But yes, we had a plan B.
Packaging and delivery logistics determine the design of a high-altitude hut. So, creating # shelter3800 we had to develop our own system of packing the parts to save the take-off weight. Its essence is that solid parts serve as package for more thin and fragile ones. Given that, on the way from production to the final stage of installation, the package must withstand not only highway transportation, but also the transship and trip in the off-roader, helicopter delivery, unloading in place wherever possible, and each set of parts must be strictly of a certain mass and be opened right before installation. Otherwise, the unpacked parts can simply be blown off the mountain.

A set of parts for the hut construction laid out on helicopter pallets
Perhaps it would be more correct to call this process "assembling", but it's too much alike expedition. Preparation, packing up, delivery and the work process. Logic and the people involved are all the same, so let's call it an expedition.

It is an important process for any mountain activity . High-altitude acclimatization is very individual. Depending on the physical and mental state, each person adapts differently, but in general, the acclimatization process takes from 3 to 10 days. We did not have time for serious preparations for the altitude. Therefore, the couple of days we had in the base camp we devoted to short walks to the surrounding summits among the endless details recount and rearrangment.
Meet the installation team. As always I am on the other side of the lense, but that't not the point. There are four of us and we love mountains more than honey.
Project Team
But in fact there are more of us. The Shelter was made by:
Artyom Oganov
Project Manager
Ilya Akhmetshin
Design and Installation
Tatiana Gnedash
Alpine Accountant
Ayk Oganov
Engineer - Constructor
Dmitriy Tabachnik
Ivan Ilyin
Alpine Engineer
Sergey Gavrish
Alpine Engineer
Maria Ovsyannikova
Alpine Engineer
04/07/2017 at 6:15 in the morning, as it usually happens in such situations, Masha and I woke up thanks to a helicopter above our tent.
Arseniy the "Heliaction" pilot managed to compactly lay down the entire cargo on the glacier, 50 meters from the installation site. In total, for the construction itself, it took us 6 flights of 500 kg each. On the 7th flight we sent food and parcels on top and on the 8th we flew ourselves.
"I've never gone to work by helicopter" - I thought when the white Eurocopter Heliaction was hanging above us. 3 Minutes and you're at the top. Fast and convenient - want to repeat. Thank you, Arseniy and Den!

Artem Oganov
4 august
Afternoon base installation.
5 august
Morning framework assembly.
5 august
Entrance room installation.
5 august
By the evening the frame and floor were finished.
6 august
The external cladding is a sandwich made of galvanized metal and laminated plywood.
6 august
Securing the outer cladding. Due to the uncertain weather in the mountains, this stage must be done in one day.
6 august
Due to the geosphere design features, we are able to choose the location of the window blocks right on the spot even in the final stages of installation.
6 august
There are 6 windows in the #shelter3800.
View from one of the windows.
6 august
The triangles can be installed from the inside! That allows to work even in the wind of 8-12 m/s.
6 august
The dome is initially equipped with a permanent anchor point.
6 august
The one triangle with an opening Velux window can also be oriented to each side. In our case, same as the entrance, it is located upon the leeward.
8 august
Insulation and inner cladding.
11 august
All the exterior works are finished, only the interior left to go.
13 august
The Shelter is ready, all tests are passed.
Elbrus North Face #Shelter 3800
History of building high mountain hut on Elbrus mountain
The Interior
23 m2 the size of a living room in an average moscow apartment.
To ensure that the shelter could house an entire group with a guide, we made three trapezium-shaped compartments designed for 3-4 people each. In addition, there's a closing guide's cabin, where two people can sleep, if necessary. The upper shelves are designed to accommodate oversized backpacks, but they easily stand three more guests looking for a place to stay. The common zone allows to fully distribute the public equipment, prepare for the ascent, prepare a simple snack, drink tea and discuss the past day. The Velux dormer window with 4 venting modes provides for microclimate and ventilation inside the shelter.Two of the 4 compartments have a pair of thick polycarbonate windows. The guide's cab and one of the compartments are specially left without windows, so that it was as warm as possible for small groups in winter. Each lower sleeping place is equipped with one or two spots for storing personal belongings.
The idea of the interior we borrowed from the arctic yacht Alter Ego. The sailors' and Arctic researchers' vessels have always been an example of ergonomics, safety and functionality. And the ideas of living together in large groups and using common space have developed there for years.
If you take away the rectangular floorboards (in the nautics those are hatches that give access to the bottom compartment), then you can sit there. Also, in case of emergency, those hatches can be used as stretchers.
The interior must pass the test of time and use. We lived in the Shelter for 6 days during construction in different conditions including strong wind, rain and hail. And we are satisfied with the result.
And, of course, we could not resist letting the professional guides test the hut.
The Entrance
The absolute majority of mountain shelters can't afford a door with illuminator.
One of our most successful features is the design of the entrance. Thanks to the geometry, after installing the frame, the doorway can be turned in any of the five directions (the angle between the installation axes is 60 degrees). This solution allows you to position the entrance in the most successful direction - on the leeward side.

In camp 3800, we intentionally oriented the entrance to the surface lowering, leaning against it a footstep-gabion. This allowed to make a drop in front of the dome, which prevents the snow to block the entrance. Another construction feature of dome structures is aerodynamics. The absence of thin air zones (due to the absence of corners) prevents snowbanks and drifts around the structure.

Since the #shelter3800 is located on a moraine, which slowly crawls down, it is necessary to check and, perhaps, adjust its horizontal position every year. To do this, each of the 11 legs has special nuts.
To look into the unknown the door is equipped with an illuminator.
The location of the entrance is chosen so that it could be accessible all year round. Due to the aerodynamic shape and the absence of thin air zones, snow will not accumulate at the base of the dome.
Ecological compatibility, capacity, good view, ergonomics and multifunctionality. Is there something we forgot?
Features and Price
The project of a high-mountain hut based on the second-frequency geospherical design at the moment has the following characteristics:
Outer diameter - 560 cm
Living area - 23 m2
Sphere height - 280 cm
Weight of structure (without the assembled gabion system) - 3000 kg
Thermal insulation - 100 mm of synthetic insulation
Minimum height above the surface - 50 cm
Maximum height above the surface - 180 cm
Sleeping accomodation:
Comfort - up to 10 people
3 compartments - three people in each + 1 VIP
Standard - 10 - 13 people
3 compartments - 4 people in each (additional accommodation avaliable on the upper shelves) + 1 VIP
Extreme - up to 19 people
3 compartments - 4 people in each + 3 on the shelves + 1 VIP + 3 in the public zone

Price of the hut-assembly - 14990 Euro