The lower of the two summits was first ascended on 10 July 1829 (Julian calendar) by Khillar Khachirov, a Karachay guide for an Imperial Russian army scientific expedition led by General Emmanuel, and the higher (by about 40 m—130 ft) in 1874 by an English expedition led by F. Crauford Grove and including Frederick Gardner, Horace Walker, and Swiss climber Peter Knubel. During the early years of the Soviet Union, mountaineering became a popular sport of the masses, and there was tremendous traffic on the mountain. In the winter of 1936, a very large group of inexperienced Komsomol members attempted the mountain, and ended up suffering many fatalities when they slipped on the ice and fell to their deaths. The Wehrmacht occupied the area surrounding the mountain from August 1942 to January 1943, during World War II, with 10,000 soldiers of a Gebirgsjäger (Mountain Troop) division. A possibly apocryphal story tells of a Soviet pilot being given a medal for bombing the main mountaineering hut, Priyut 11, while it was occupied. He was then later nominated for a medal for not hitting the hut, but instead the German fuel supply, leaving the hut standing for future generations. When news reached Adolf Hitler that a detachment of mountaineers was sent by the general officer commanding the German division to climb to the summit of Elbrus and plant the swastika flag at its top, he reportedly flew into a rage, called the achievement a "stunt" and threatened to court martial the general.
The Soviet Union encouraged ascents of Elbrus, and in 1956 it was climbed en masse by 400 mountaineers to mark the 400th anniversary of the incorporation of Kabardino-Balkaria, the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic where Elbrus was located.
From 1959 through 1976, a cable car system was built in stages that can take visitors as high as 3,800 metres (12,500 ft). There is a wide variety of routes up the mountain, but the normal route, which is free of crevasses, continues more or less straight up the slope from the end of the cable car system. During the summer, it is not uncommon for 100 people to be attempting the summit via this route each day. Winter ascents are rare, and are usually undertaken only by very experienced climbers. Elbrus is notorious for its brutal winter weather, and summit attempts are few and far between. The climb is not technically difficult, but it is physically arduous because of the elevations and the frequent strong winds. The average annual death toll on Elbrus is 15–30, primarily due to "many unorganized and poorly equipped" attempts to summit the mountain.
Mount Elbrus should not be confused with the Alborz (also called Elburz) mountains in Iran, which also derive their name from the legendary mountain Harā Bərəzaitī in Persian mythology.
In 1997, a Land Rover Defender was driven to the summit, breaking into the Guinness Book of Records.