Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Mt Elbrus: The Frosty Caucasus

Standing proud at the Caucasus gateway between Russia and Georgia, Mt Elbrus is considered to be the tallest mountain in Europe. Exploring deep into southern Russia’s “Wild West”, Simon Raven and Chris Raven, visit this double coned volcano with many names in many languages.

Mt Elbrus, South Ossetia-Alania, Russia. By Simon Raven
Extract from the book: BLACK SEA CIRCUIT
By Chris Raven, Simon Raven

The rain thunders down as a veil of thick cloud swirls around the body of Mt Elbrus. Si flicks on the squeaky windscreen wipers, and on the glass I draw a smiley face in the condensation. Rising 5,642 metres above sea level, Mt Elbrus is a double-coned volcano with a permanent icecap that feeds twenty-two glaciers. This majestic fortress of rock and ice is located on a moving tectonic area, and was formed more than 2.5 million years ago. The name Elbrus “Alborz” is believed to have roots in Middle Persian and derives from a mountain in Iranian mythology called “Hara Berezaiti”, meaning “High Sentinel”. Located at the crossroads of cultures at the axis of migrating civilisations, Elbrus has names in many other languages including “Mingi Taw” in Turkic, meaning “Eternal Mountain” and “Oshkhamakhua” in Circassian, meaning “Mountain of Happiness”.

During the Hellenistic period the mountain was known as “Strobilus” (pine cone) in Latin; in reference to the volcanoes twisted peak. According to the curse of Zeus, everyday a giant eagle was to descend from the skies and devour Prometheus’s liver. During the night, his wounds would heal and the torture would begin again. The Titan was eventually saved by Hercules who defeated the eagle. In local Balkar mythology, they believe Mt Elbrus was trapped in ice by Allah as punishment for being too proud to bow in prayer to the Muslim holy site of Mount Arafat, east of Mecca.

Refusing to let the weather dampen our spirits, we drop by the 7Summit climbing shop and tour office in Terskol. Enjoying the novelty and warmth of being inside, we meet the assertive manager named Anna, who has shoulder length jet-black hair and rosy cheeks. We sip coffee and watch a group of climbers trying on hiking boots and choosing their ice axes and ski poles. There is an air of excitement in the room, an anxious anticipation. Si sparks up a conversation with a ruddy-faced chap from Moscow, who strides around the shop and tests out his new hiking boots. He tells us they hope to climb Elbrus in two days’ time when the weather is forecast to improve. Two women from Norway inspect their poles, while a young couple debate about whether a blue or orange jacket looks better on the mountain.

I join Si outside and we meet a local guide who is chatting to his wife and young son on his laptop. I leap in front of the webcam and sing "dobryy vecher!" Pavel has a great sense of humour. When he hears about our expedition, he tells the story about the Russian adventurer, Alexander Abramov, who drove a Land Rover to the top of Elbrus in 1997. The vehicle had become stuck on the way down, and still remains on the mountain to this day. Mt Elbrus is considered to be Europe’s highest summit, with regards to the seven highest mountains of each of the seven continents. F. Crauford Grove and a Swiss guide, Peter Knubel, made the first recorded ascent of Mt Elbrus in July 1874. Grove was one of the best British climbers of his time and wrote a book 'The Frosty Caucasus’.

Bidding Pavel goodnight, we retire to the shelter of the Hotel Volvo. I’m about to flick on the heater when Anna suddenly appears with her basset hound puppy. She looks shocked to see us sitting in the car.
  ‘It is too cold to sleep in your car tonight. Please, sleep in the shop.’
  Not wishing to be any trouble, she insists, so we quickly grab our sleeping bags and drag them inside. Anna leads the dog into the apartment at the back of the 7Summit office and pours us both a glass of Chilean Malbec, a present from a tourist. Overwhelmed by her kindness, we sip the delicious wine and learn about the many climbers who travel to this region of southern Russia from countries across the world. Anna reveals tourism has been on the decrease in recent years, due to people in Russia being able to travel overseas more freely now. Si suggests that the publicity around the Sochi Winter Olympics might attract more international tourists here, but she seems doubtful. I ask Anna if climbing Mt Elbrus is dangerous.
  She nods vehemently, flicking her hair away from her face. ‘Of course, every year the mountain claims lives. But it is usually the result of poor organization and equipment. The weather can change very quickly here.’
  Mt Elbrus is considered to be one of the most dangerous mountains on the Seven Summit circuit. In March 1963, even Tenzing Norgay, the first man to climb Mt Everest with Edmund Hillary, failed to reach the summit of Elbrus because of bad weather. Si rubs his tired face and represses a yawn. His eyes are bloodshot and his face looks weather-beaten. Anna asks what two English brothers are doing all the way out here in the remote Caucasus Mountains. ‘Most tourists fly via Moscow, not drive from the UK in their car!’
  ‘We are on a quest to drive around the Black Sea,’ I reply.
  ‘Ah, so you are adventurers,’ she smiles. ‘I think if more people had the chance to travel, maybe they would realise we are not all so different.’
  I ask Anna if Mt Elbrus is in Europe or Asia.
  ‘The mountains do not belong to anyone,’ she laughs. ‘They are bigger than we are. We must respect them.’
  Finishing the wine, Anna locks the door and places the keys on the counter.
  ‘I have an early start tomorrow, so I must sleep,’ she smiles. ‘If you want to go outside, no problem, but please remember to lock the door.’

Humbled by Anna’s amazing hospitality and trust towards two complete strangers, we bid her goodnight and she disappears into her adjoining apartment. I curl up on the floor in my sleeping bag. An outside lamp floods the climbing shop in dim orange light that illuminates crampons, ice axes and climbing helmets that are hung on the walls. Expensive brand name hiking boots and winter jackets crowd the shelves. I hear a tapping noise at the window. I glance over and see a huge moth flapping madly around the outside light. It casts eerie shadows on the wall. Covering my head with my sleeping bag I drift into a deep sleep.

by Simon Raven, Chris Raven

UK travel writers on a quest to drive full circle around the Black Sea in a twenty year old Volvo. 

Order your copy online from Amazon and all major book retailers. ISBN 9780954884284.

USA Amazon: Read Black Sea Circuit >

UK Amazon: Read Black Sea Circuit >

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