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THE CAUCASUS MOUNTAINS ARE THE DISTANT AND MYSTERIOUS NATURAL BORDER BETWEEN EUROPE AND ASIA AND HOST ONE OF THE SEVEN SUMMITS.

Name: The Caucasus Mountains
Height: 5,642 m (18,510 ft)
Location: West Asia, between The Black Sea and the Caspian Sea
First Climbed: West Peak of Elbrus in July 1874. by F. Crauford Grove, F. Gardiner, H. Walker, A. Sottajev, and P. Knubel and the East Peak in 1829 by Killar Hashirov.
Climb Time: 5- 6 hours
Best Time to Climb: from mid-May to mid-September

INTRODUCTION TO THE CAUCASUS MOUNTAINS

The Caucasus region lies at the door of Europe and Asia, between The Black Sea and The Caspian Sea, occupying the territory of Russia, Georgia, and Armenia. Eponymous with the region, The Caucasus Mountains include the Greater Caucasus in the north and the Lesser Caucasus in the south.

The Greater Caucasus, the major mountain range, runs from the Caucasian natural reserve near Sochi (where The Olympic games were held in 2014) on the northeastern shore of the Black Sea to Baku on the Caspian Sea. The Lesser Caucasus, about 600km long, extends parallel to the Greater about 100km south. Two ranges are connected by the Likhi Range, surrounded by Cochi plain and Kura-Aras lowland, on the banks of Kura and Aras rivers. The Meshketi range is part of the Lesser Caucasus, in the Meshketi region in Georgia, while the Aras River separates the Lesser Caucus from the Talysh Mountains.

The Transcaucasian highland includes the Lesser Caucasus and the Armenian highland, on the border of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, converging with the highland plateau of  Eastern Anatolia, in the northeast of Turkey. The highest peak in the Caucasus range and the highest mountain in Europe and the tenth most prominent peak in the world is Mount Elbrus in the Greater Caucasus, which rises to a height of 5,642 meters (18,510 ft). Its two summits are passive volcanic tops.

 Mt Elbrus

Mt Elbrus

HISTORY OF THE CAUCASUS MOUNTAINS

Long mountain ranges, snowy hilltops, steep and rocky edges with stunning cliffs; the Caucasus shaped the history around itself with its amazing, and sometimes daunting reaches. The Caucasus and their mountainsides have always been a fertile ground for culture, if not always for agriculture. The first human-print here can be dated back to Paleolithic Era.

Starting from the emergence of the Civilizations in the Fertile Crescent, the Caucasus formed a natural border between what is known as the Civilized World and beyond. Many empires and mighty emperors had to rethink and recalculate their decisions when they encountered the Caucasus. So did the religious leaders of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam... They all reached to these stupendous Caucasus Mountains and left their imprints on the landscape without being able to dominate the whole. Also reached different groups of people, speaking unknown languages with the previous habitats, succeeding each other, they bequeathed a vibrant cultural zone in which homogeneity does not form a distinct part.

More modern times in the Caucasus have continued this legacy of vibrant and interacting cultures. The Russian Empire and its attempts to include the region on the one side, and the local resistance against it on the other, never ceased to exist up until today. Nowadays four states, namely, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia can be found in the Caucasus. None of them forms a nation-state with more or less homogeneous population. There are at last 50 ethnic groups scattered within this rough patch of the earth, with at least 4 dominant creeds living side by side.

GEOGRAPHY OF THE CAUCASUS MOUNTAINS. THE NORTH AND THE SOUTH

When the Argonauts reached Kolkhida, the seaside lying at the mountainsides of the North Caucasus, they must have been amazed not only by the wealth of the society they encountered but also by the view of the mountains which prevailed the landscape, and, which, many centuries ago, protected the Circassians who rebelled against their own god living on top of the mountains.

So rough are the mountains, so supreme are the barriers between the basins, even the architecture yields before this dominating power of the Caucasus, let alone the climate. The seaside abruptly dissociates from the hinterland with its milder climate whereas in the hinterland the norm consists of dark and long winters which enabled the villagers to concentrate more on their micro-cultures.

The mountains include the highest point of Europe, Mount Elbrus, over 5000 meters high, which is located in the North Caucasus. The Lesser Caucasus, being the smaller of these two Caucasus, however, is less rough than its elder sister. The highest peak of the Lesser Caucasus is Aragats reaching the height of 4090m (13420 ft). Both mountain ranges lie northwest to southeast, and partly separated by plains lying in the same direction.

The Caucasus divides the Black Sea from the Caspian Sea, however, the rivers’ springs from the Caucasus Mountains flow into both seas: The Aras River into the Caspian Sea whereas the Rioni River and the Enguri River into the Black Sea.

 Lake Sevan, Armenia

Lake Sevan, Armenia

The marvelous sight of Lake Sevan in Armenia completes the enchanting atmosphere of the mountainous territory of the south. It is also one of the biggest freshwater high-altitude lakes in Europe. Adding to that, being the biggest lake not only of the country but also the region, it is no wonder why it has always attracted people living around.

Having mentioned the ethnic richness of the region, followed by always prevailing political games, the logical conclusion can lead to the fact that passing through the region might be complicated. It is in fact quite accessible but check if you need a Visa!

WILDLIFE OF THE CAUCASUS MOUNTAINS

The Caucasus region has over endemic 6400 plant species, 348 birds, 131 mammals, 86 reptiles, 17 amphibians, and 127 freshwater fishes. Due to an illegal logging, fuelwood harvesting, timber trade, smuggling and wildlife trade, infrastructure development, illegal fishing, pollution, the region is threatened by the loss of biodiversity.

Fauna.

Some of the most recognizable animals are brown bears, wild boars, Euroasian lynx, long-eared hedgehogs, bezoar ibex, leopards, marals, wolves, European bison, golden eagles, hooded crows, glass lizards. The Caucasian Shepherd (Ovcharka) is the breed of this region. Among invertebrates, around 1000 spider species are listed in the Caucasus

Flora.

With habitats including forests, alpine meadows, and arid salt flats, like the rest of Russia, it treasures a brilliant wildlife. The common landscape is one of mixed forest, with considerable areas of craggy ground above the treeline.

FIRST ASCENT OF MOUNT ELBRUS

The first ascent of the West Peak of Elbrus took place in July 1874. The climbers were F. Crauford Grove, F. Gardiner, H. Walker, A. Sottajev, and P. Knubel. F. Crauford Grove,  was an English mountaineer and author. He led the first expedition and was at one time president of the Alpine Club, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography called a "gentleman traveller of independent means". He published the book titled  The Frosty Caucasus: an account of a walk through part of the Range and of an ascent of Elbruz in the summer of 1874 (London, Longmans, Green & Co, 1875, 341 pp.) The title of the book is taken from William Shakespeare's play Richard II: “O, who can hold a fire in his hand By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?’’ The first ascent of the East Peak was in 1829 by Killar Hashirov.

CLIMBING GUIDE FOR THE CAUCASUS MOUNTAINS

There are a number of climbing routes to reach the summit of the Mount Elbrus.

From Mineralnye Vody or Nalchik where most of the people arrive by plane or by bus, it’s possible to reach Terskol by bus. Then a walking route of 5 km up the valley will take you to Azau at 2350 m (7700 ft) where the first cable car station is. You can take a ride if you prefer it and arrive at the outset of the standard route starting at Barrels Hut at 3900m (12,795 ft). The next stop is Diesel Hut at 4157 m (13,638 ft). It’s highly recommendable to stick to the route which is marked with wands, cause surrounding slopes are covered with huge crevasses. The next step is climbing the Pashtuva Rocks, located at 4670 m (15,321 ft). The route might seem anfractuous, before climbing up to the saddle at 5416m (17769 ft). Once reached, head towards the West Peak at 5642m (18513 ft) and then towards the East Summit 5621m (18441 ft). Total elevation is 1743m (5718 ft), about 6 to 8 hours up while descent usually takes 3 to 6 hours. For a detailed guide, visit https://www.summitpost.org/standard-route-south-face-azau-valley/165446.

Elbrus north route is the oldest route, used in 1929. The route passes through exceptional nature of Caucasus Natural Park. The area is free of hotels, restaurants, cable cars so the only option for reaching the summit is by walking. There are two camps Basecamp and High camp at  2500/3800m (8202/12467 ft). The way to Basecamp starts in Kislovodsk from which you should get to Dzhily-Su and take a 5km walk to Basecamp or get by off-road vehicle directly to Basecamp. The climb starts from a High camp of Elbrus tours. It takes around two, three hours to reach Lenz Rocks. Usually, people decide to climb the West Summit 5642m (18513 ft), even though the way to the East Summit 5621m (18441 ft ) is 3 hours shorter. Usually the decision is made at the altitude of around 5100m (16732 ft) on the summit day. If you are interested to discover more go to https://www.summitpost.org/elbrus-north-route/989201.

 Ascending Mt Elbrus

Ascending Mt Elbrus

The mountain is not too demanding in a technical sense. The weather is highly cold and bitter, so the complete expedition clothing like ice axe, crampons, harnesses and rope is highly recommended. Plastic boots are necessary in May and June.

Elbrus Race is nowadays a regular competition that takes place every year from 2005 onwards. There are two options like the classic climb and a long climb. The record time for the full race, ascent, and descent, of the long route, is 4:20:45 set in 2017 by the Swiss-Ecuadorian mountain guide Karl Egloff and best time 4:30:12 set by a woman on the long route for the ascent is set by Diana Zelenova in 2017.

There’s also a possibility of climbing the East Peak in three different ways, by taking alternative routes. The additional information about the alterations on https://www.summitpost.org/east-peak-three-variations/166220.

INFORMATION ON HIKING AND TREKKING AROUND THE CAUCASUS MOUNTAINS

Many people are captivated by the beauty of The Caucasus Mountains and it’s not without reason that the region got the title of the trekking paradise. Snow coated peaks, a vast territory of emptiness, isolation, the unknown, diverse ethnic groups. Like for many still establishing regions, the trails are not marked well and the area still looks like a wild indigenous country. That’s where its beauty lies. Suitable for weekend escapes as well as for ten or more days long trekking or hiking tours. The best period is from June until late October, with its pros and cons for each period. From beautiful, blooming greenery to yellowish, melancholic autumn scenery, depending on what you prefer, the vast country dominated by these monumental mountains stand still,  not caring much about its rare visitors. For more information about trekking, visit Culture Trip or Caucasus Trekking. If you are keen on adventures, but don’t have enough time to prepare your own itinerary, try some organized tours.

The Transcaucasian trail is a project that started a few years ago and consists of developing a 1500km long trail via the Caucasus Mountains. The idea of having an easily followed trail through 5000m high peaks and almost forgotten villages is not accomplished yet.

One of the popular hikes is located south of Mount Elbrus, in Georgia, in Svaneti region with the most popular trek starting in Mestia to Ushguli, a mountain village. It’s 58 km long trail, usually 4 days long trek, with a possibility of sleeping in the villages. For more details, visit http://www.caucasus-trekking.com/treks/mestiaushguli.

Then Kazbeghi which is north of Tbilisi, close to the Russian border. From Mount Kazbeghi to Juta is a 17km long walk, around four hours. For more info jump to http://www.caucasus-trekking.com/regions/kazbegi.

Tusheti is a distant, peaceful land in northern Georgia, part of the northern Caucasus. Most of the hikers and trekkers stay in Pirikiti Alazani valley between villages Omalo and Parsma, charming stone villages. The flocks of sheer that move to their summer pasture in the mountains are often followed by devoted hikers.

Another hiking option in Tusheti is a hike from Ghele to Parsma, pretty long hike of about 8 to 9 hours, but not too demanding. Around 21 km long, from short but steep climb to wide flat meadows. The next stop of  Pitsilanta hill is just in front. The Nakle-Kholi pass at 2918m (9573 ft), Makratela hill (3100m) are some of the interesting places. Additional information on http://www.caucasus-trekking.com/regions/tusheti.

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