“The horizon is endless. Pass after pass, peak after peak. You can feel how mysterious and unknown these mountains are,” says Vitaly Stegno. He is a mountain guide from the North Caucasus and the protagonist of Planet Elbrus, a short film following a journey to climb the 5,642 m of Russia’s Mount Elbrus.
The film, co-produced by East Road Media and Black Forest Collective with the support of Russian adventure travel agency RMH, follows a 14-day ski expedition on Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe.
Combining breathtaking drone footage and landscape shots of rolling clouds with snippets of interviews with Stegno, Planet Elbrus captures the immensity and jarring beauty of the North Caucasus, and the lives of those for whom these rugged peaks are home, in just over three minutes.
“We were filming for a mountain guide company, and we were surprised by the beauty of the area and the hospitality of the people. We realised that what we truly wanted to do was paint a picture of the mountain through the eyes of the locals,” Milo Zanecchia from East Road Media told The Calvert Journal. “We were there for commercial reasons, but we ended up focusing on something more meaningful. That’s where the film came from.”
Elbrus, which premiered in 2020 and has been screened at film festivals worldwide, also seeks to change foreigners’ negative perception of the region. In the film, Stegno reads out the US Department of State’s travel recommendations for the North Caucasus, which currently stands at “Level 4: Do Not Travel.” “These statements are written without knowledge of the area. The actual climbing of Elbrus is not that difficult, but few people venture here because of governments’ advice against travel,” explains Zanecchia. “This makes the lives of guides like Vitaly very difficult.”
Mount Elbrus is in southern Russia, in the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. Treks start from a village close to the base of the mountain, where there is a ski resort and a few hotels. During the expedition itself, the only signs of life are improvised huts made from shipping containers.
“We would climb for the whole day, and spend the night in those containers at -30C. It is the most challenging filming I’ve ever done,” says Zanecchia, who specialises in adventure filmmaking and photography. “You’d only be able to take off your gloves for 10 seconds. Behind the peaceful moments in the film, there is a team of five trying to pull it all off while freezing. Sometimes, an entire day of shooting would only give us three seconds of footage.”
“Still, being out there in the wild made it worth it. I’ve never been anywhere like Elbrus. You could wake up and walk for the whole day, and you’d still be the only person on the horizon.”