Caucasus range, extending 1200km between Black Sea in the west and Caspian Sea in the east, forms both geographic, ethnic and political barrier between Europe and Asia. North to south the range extends maximally 180km. Although it is the home to the highest mountains of the Europe, the area is relatively little known among western climbers, as the access was formerly difficult. There are seven peaks above 5000m. The Great Caucasus is traditionally divided into three regions - Western, Central and Eastern, with conventional borders coming through two highest peaks: Mt. Elbrus (5642m) to the west and Mt. Kazbek (5033m) to the east.
Caucasus was popular climbing destination during Soviet-era, thus there are several alpine camps and hotels in the valleys of the area. Except for Refuge Eleven (Prijut 11) there are no wardened high altitude refuges. However, there are few bivouac huts especially in the Elbrus area. Nearest convenient center to access climbing destinations from is Mineral'nyee Vody on the Russian side. It can be reached by plane from Moscow and Kiew (and sometimes from some other cities as well). From there climbing regions can be accessed by roads (railway can also be used for the first part). Another convenient center is Nalchik, located somewhat closer to Bezingi.
Note: There are alternative ways of spelling many names in Asian ranges.
Climate to the southern side of the Caucasian ridge is considerably warmer and moister than on the northern side. Temperatures in the low valleys, especially in the western part, are warm. Best time fro trekking and climbing is considered to be the second half July and August. During that period the weather is usually stable.
To the north of Caucasus lies Russia. Northern side is the most commonly used access to the climbs in Caucasus. Mineral'nyee can be reached by plane from Moscow and Kiev. From there it is a short train trip to Pyaigark, from where the climbs are reachable by car. To the south of Caucasus lie Transcaucasian region with countries Georgia, Azerbaijjan, Armenia and Dagestan.
Russian grading scale is used to grade climbs in the Caucasus. In his guidebook Friedrich Bender presents a comparison table between climbs in the Caucasus and climbs in Western Alps (some of these seem quite surprising):
|Pik Schurovsky, SE Ridge 2A (300m)||Mont Blanc du Tacul, normal route (II-III PD-; 40°, 700m)|
|Elbrus, normal route 2A-B (PD-; 35-40°; 1540m)||Mont Blanc, Gouter route (III PD-; II, 35° 1050m)|
|Dongus-Orun, East Ridge 2B (2 days from Terskol)||Tour Ronde, SE Ridge (II PD/PD+; II/5.3, 35-40°, 420m)|
|Jantugan, North face 3B (6-8h)||Lenzspitze, North Face "Dreieselswand" (III D/D+, 55° III; 490m)|
|Dongus-Orun, NE Ridge 4A (2 days)||Aiguille du Midi, Frendo Spur (III D+; IV/5.7 AI4/80°; 1100m)|
|Ushba, North Peak, North ridge 4A (D; 50°; 700m)||Aiguille du Argentiere, North face (D-; 700m)|
|Bashkra traverse 4A (III, 2 days)||Rochefort arete (III AD; 45° II; 650m)|
|Nakra-Tau, North face left pillar "Abalakov" 4B (IV, 12-16h)||Les Droites, NE Spur (!) (TD/TD+; V/WI4+/Sco IV/V, 5c; 1050m). In the text the route is mentioned to be comparable to Frendo Spur on the north face of Aiguille du Midi which sounds more believable.|
|Ushba, South Peak, South Ridge "Schulze" 5A||Grand Capucin, East Face (!) (TD/TD+; V+/VI,A1; 350m)|
|Ushba, South Peak, traverse from North Peak 5A (700m)||Aiguille de Blaitiere traverse|
|Pik Schurovsky, NW Ridge "Khergiani" 5B (TD+)||Grandes Jorasses, Walker Spur (IV ED1/G13; VI-,A1, 60°; 1200m)|
The Westernmost part of Caucasus has splendid rock faces in a very beautiful setting. Due to proxmity to the Black Sea the range is not glaciated and climate here is warmer and climbing conditions are less stern than in other sections of the Caucasus. The region is popular among hikers and rock climbers. Dombay is the main convenient center for the climbs of this area. Most interesting parts of the area for climbers are Dombay and Uzunkol.
The only mountain reaching 4000m is Mt. Dombay-Ulgen (4046m) is located in Dombay area, where there are plenty of established routes (normal route 3B). Mt.Belalakaja (3861m), considered the "Matterhorn of the Caucasus" is another highlight of the area (3B via northern ridge, 3A via southern rib).
In Uzunkol the best known mountain is Mount Dalar (3979m).
Central Caucasus between Mount Elbrus (5642m) in the west and Mount Kazbek (5033m) in the east forms the heart of the whole range containing the highest mountains. Glaciers, wide rock and ice faces and razor-sharp aretes are characteristic for the area. Elbrus Region and Bezengi area are the best known climbing destinations. Mount Kazbek (5033m) in the eastern part of central Caucasus has easy snow routes to their summits.
Of these, Prielbrusie and Bezingi areas are by far the most interesting for climbers.
Elbrus area is by far the most popular area in Caucasus for climbing. Here in turn, by far the most popular destination is Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in the Caucasus and thus also in the Europe. The main routes are basic glacier climbs (grade 2A). The area has some other well known climbing objectives, like legendary Mount Ushba (4710m), Shkhelda Towers (4320m), Dongus-Orun (4468m), Nakra-Tau and Ullu-Tau (4207m). Climbs on these are typically long and almost without exception significantly harder than Elbrus, with several routes graded between 4-6.
Most climbs in Elbrus area (Prielbrysie) are accessed from main Baksan valley or one its side valleys. The valley is reached from Mineral'nye Vody by a road through Kabardina Balkanskaya and city of Tyrryauz up to the Baksan valley where villages Elbrus and Terskol are located (3,5h by bus from Mineral'nyee Vody by bus, 2,5h from Nalchik). The end of the road is at Asan, where a telepherique to Mount Elbrus starts. There are several mountaineering camps in the area with Baksan mountaineering camp (1800m) located centrally in the main valley. Additionally there are several hotels in close to Terskol. Side valleys of Dongus-Orun, Yusengi, Adyl-Su and Adyr-Su offer approach to most of the climbs.
Unfortunately the area (or more accurately some parts of it) have added objective hazard of being robbed or kidnapped. This hazard is mainly true on the areas located on or very close to Georgian border, mainly Donguz-Orun, Yusengi and Shkhelda valleys. Additionally border patrol may cause problems on these areas (especially in Shkhelda valley).
Normal routes start at Refuge Eleven Hut (also knows as Diesel Hut, 4100m) or Barrels Huts (also known as Botchki, 3900m). Barrels Huts can be reached from Baksan valley by ski lifts.
Dongus-Orun valley is located immediately to the south of the village of Terskol (2130m). The valley is is bordered by Azau Chain in the west, Caucasus main ridge in the south and Kogutai chain in the east. Azau chain joins Caucasus main ridge at Jipper-Azau (3862m). There are two mountain passes, Dongus-Orun Pass (3198m) and False Donguz-Orun Pass between Jipper-Azau and and Nakra-Tau (4277m). These passages give access from Dongus-Orun valley to Nakra glacier located on the southern side of Caucasus main chain.
Most conveniently located base for climbs in the valley is Hotel Cheget. There's cable car from the hotel to Azau-Gitshe-Chegetkara (3680m) that make climbing Lower Dongus-Orun (3760m) via East Ridge (2A) possible from Terskol as a one day round trip. Climbs further up the valley are usually accessed from a bivouac at the upper Donguz-Orun lake at 2600m. North faces of Nakra-Tau (4277m) and Donguz-Orun West (4437) dominate the landscape of the valley and are the most sought after climbs of the valley. Left Pillar on Nakra-Tau ("Abalakov") is the most recommended route on the face (4B, IV), although it is more difficult than the right pillar (4B, III), central route between the pillars or Italian couloir (to the right of the right pillar). Another option would be North Buttress between North Face and NW Ridge (4A). Easier climbs are found on Nakra-Tau NW Ridge (2B-3A) and NE Ridge of Donguz-Orun West (4A, possible to traverse to main summit). North Face of Donguz-Orun West is a serious climb giving 1600 vertical meters of difficult mixed climbing with significant objective hazard. Few routes are found on the face, with Khergiani (5B) probably the most famous. "Rototaev" via NW Buttress is somewhat easier (4B) alternative.
Easiest way to (2A) climb Donguz-Orun is to cross southern (Georgian side) via false Donguz-Orun pass. This route requires one bivouac at the glacier on the Georgian side. This may not be feasible option though, due to potential border difficulties and especially due to risk of being robbed.
Kogutai (3821m) is the most prominent peak in the Kogutai chain separating Donguz-Orun valley in the east and Yusenagi valley in the west. Traverse from Kogutai main peak to south peak is 2A.
Yusengi valley is located to the east of Dongus-Orun valley, separated form it by Kogutai chain. southern border is formed by Caucasus main chain including Dongus-Orun West (4437m), Main (4452m) and East (4442m) and few minor peaks. Eastern border of the valley is formed by Yusengi chain branching northwards at Yusengi (3414m). The valley is accessed from Camp Baksan (1800m) or trekking base Terenekli. Northern lodgings (2430m) provide shelter higher up in the valley. Access to bivouac on East Donguz-orun glacier takes 5-7h. Most obvious climbing destination is Dongus-Orun with the normal route going via East Ridge and North Pillar (2B).
Still further in the east, Shkhelda valley are used to access several famous climbs. The valley is bordered Yusengi chain in the west and Caucasus main ridge in the south and east. Main Ridge forms steep border known as Shkhela Wall including Ahksu (3827m) further to the west followed by Little Shkhelda (4140m), Sportsman's Peak (399m), Bivouac Peak (3990m), Trade Union Peak (4110m), six summits of Shkhelda (West 1 (422m), West 2 (4310m), Scientists' Peak, Pik Aristov (4229m), Central (4295m) and East (4320m)). After the Shkhelda East there's a gap in the wall known as Ushba Pass that is used to access Ushba plateau (4000m) on the other side of the main chain. On the other side of Ushba Pass rises Pik Shchurvskky (4259m). The main ridge turns towards north here and includes Chatyn pass (3660m), Railway Worker's Peak (3900m), Pik Woolley (3960m), Shkelda Pass and Pik Kavkaz (4037m). Here the main chain takes a sharp turn to east but smaller ridge extends further towards north from Bzedukh (4271m) forming the rest of the eastern border of the valley.
The valley is most readily accessed form Camp Shkhelda (2000m), Camp Elbrus (2050m) or Camp Jantugan (2100m, 6km from the city of Elbrus). For most climbs though, bivouac further up in the valley is necessary. There's German bivouac close to the Ushba ice fall in the end of the valley (400m, 7-9h from Camp Shkhelda).
North face of Shkhelda has host of difficult routes ranging from 5A to 6A (all about 1200m high). Shkhelda West 2 via West 1 is far easier at 3B. Traverse of the Shkhelda summits is a classic outing at 5B. Pik Schurovskogo North Face has routes between 4B (NW Ridge) and 5B with "Khergiani" at 5B (TD+) being probably the most famous (45° steep rock, 400m). On the eastern side of the valley, NW face of Bzheduk is one of the prominent climbs. Easier climbs are found on Pik Woolley SW route (1B) and Pik Kavkaz East route (3A).
The upper part of the Shkhelda valley consists of Ushba ice fall that gives access to Ushba Plateau (4000m, 1-2 days (13-16h from Camp Shkhelda). Plateau is the most common starting point for the climbs of legendary Ushba. Access to plateau is usually relatively easy early in the season (June and July), afterwards it can be very complicated because of excessive crevassing. Alternative means of access to Ushba plateau is from Shkhelda valley through bivouac pass between Sportsmann's Peak and Bivouac Peak on the western side of Shkhelda Wall to the south Shkhelda glacier that must be crossed to join Ushba glacier. Normal route is the north ridge of the lower North Peak (4694m) at 4A (50° snow and knife-edge ridge). Climbers insisting to summit Ushba South can traverse from the N summit to S summit which boosts the grade to 5A. Another option from the Ushba glacier is West Face Direct (5B) or NW Face ("Kolotsev", 6B9 of Ushba North, both start far lower in the glacier and give some 1600m of serious climbing. To climb Usba South from Ushba Plateau probably the best pick would be NW face - NW Rib at 5B. SE Ridge of neighbouring Pik Shchurovsky (2A, 300m and 2-3h from Ushba Plateau) and Western route on Little Ushba (4320m, 2B) are much easier alternatives. A bit further north lies Chatyn-Tay (West 4310m, Main 4368m). West Ridge of the Main summit via West Peak is 3A. For climbers seeking a more demanding outing find their wish on the north face (accessed from Shkhelda valley via Chatyn pass to Chalaat glacier). The North face, known as "Rhombus", that rises for 500m with average angle of 82° is home to some of the most difficult routes in Caucasus (grade 6).
The "normal" route of Ushba South (4710m) is the classic "Schulze" that is approached from the SE (Svanetia) side via village of Mazeri and Gul. Normal doesn't translate to easy in this case though as the route is graded at 5A.
Adyl-Su valley is bordered in the south by Caucasus main ridge between peaks Bzedukh (4271m), Free Spain peak (4200m), Kashkatash Pass (3719m), Ullukara (4302m), Bashkra (4241m), Jantugan (3991m), Jantugan Pass (3810m), Jantugan East Pass and Gumatchi (3810m). It is separated from Shkhelda valley in the east by the ridge running towards north from Bzedukh and smaller chain reaching towards north from Gumatchi in the east. Upper part of the valley is divided in three by Pik Germogenonova (3993) and Chegetkara (3770) between Kashkatash and Bashkara glaciers and smaller ridge between Bashkara and Jankuat glacier. The valley has alpine camps Adyl-Su (1800m), Shkhelda (2000m), Elbrus (2050m) and Jantugan (2120m) in the valley.
Westernmost part of the upper Adyl-Su valley consists of Kashkatash glacier. Bzedukh, Free Spain Peak, Ullukara, Pik Germogenova and Chegetkara can be climbed from Kashkatash glacier. Climbs are usually started from "Red bivouac" on the Kashkatash glacier below Pik Germogenova (3050m, 3-4h from camp Jantugan). Further in the valley on Chegetkara glacier lies Steinbock (Ibex) bivouac (4-5h from camp Jantuhgan) that is used for climbs on Germogenova north side.
Bashkra glacier is reached via Green Bivouac, located close to MGU glaciological station (2h from camp Jantugan). Depending on the objective, climbs are accessed from a bivouac on the glacier, either under Chegetkara (3770m), 3-4h from the camp) or further to the east. Both Jantugan and Jantugan East passes can be used for bivouac. The valley gives access to north faces of Ullukara where Austrian route (4B, first ascent by famous Erich Vanis and Party) is a classic. North face of Jantugan is easier at 3B.
Jankuat glacier further to the east is used to climb Jantugan East Ridge (2A) or classic Bashkara traverse over Bashkara (4241m), Godil (4120m) and Lekzir-Tau (3764m) (4A). Both of these routes start from Jantugan Pass (3460m, 3-4h from Green bivouac). Other climbs from the valley include Gumatchi North Ridge (1B) or traverse Gumatchi from Cheget-Tau (4110m) along West Ridge (3A).
Adyr-Su valley furthest to the east is surrounded by smaller chain reaching towards north from Gumatchi, Caucasus main ridge in the south and Adyr-Su chain in the East and North. On the Main Ridge Adyr-Su valley provides access to Gumatchi (3810m), Cheget-Tau (4110m), Lazga (3995m), Garvash pass (3706m), Ullu Tau (West 4203m, Main 4207m and East 4058m), Mestia Pass (3751m) and Sarikol (4160m).
Apine camps of Jailik (2300m) and Ullu-Tau (2350m) are located. The valley has Naumov bivouac on East Ullu-Tau glacier and Cheget bivouac on Ullu-Tau glacier (2-3h from camp Ullu-Tau). Another commonly used base for the climbs from Adyr-Su valley is bivouac in Mestia Pass (3751m). The pass can be reached from camp Ullu-Tau in 6-8 via Mestia bivouac and Adyr-Su hut.
Ullu-Tau is is by far the most important climb from the valley, with numerous routes on its broad 800m high north face. "The Shield" on the north face of West Peak is the most classic on those routes (4B/TD-, 800m). Both it and much easier North Ridge of West Peak (2B) are started from Cheget bivouac on Ullu-Tau glacier (2-3h from Camp Ullu-Tau). Another classic climb on Ullu-Tau is traverse from East to West (4A). Sarikol SW Ridge from North (1B) and Mestia-Tau (4130m, also 1B) are easy climbs accessible from the valley.
Adyr-Su chain forms the eastern and northern borders of Adyr-Su valley. Although the chain has several peaks rising above 4000m height and has the most favorable climate of the region, there is no very famous climbing peaks in the chain. The highest peak is Jailik (4533m) with normal route along SE Ridge 3B. Most climbs can be reached from Kullumkol valley, side valley of Adyr-Sy to the south of Adyr-Su chain. Besides Jailik, Tiutiu Bashi (4460m), Yunomkara-Tau (4365m), Oru-Bashi (4310m) and Adyr-Su Bashi (4370m) are probably the best know peaks.
Some climbs are approached from the Tiutiusu valley to the north of Adyr-Su chain (bivouac either on Tiutiu glacier (Tiutiu Bashi, Jailik, kentchat, Ordiu) or on North Sullukol glacier (Sullukol).
Bezengi area, located 65km east of Mount Elbrus has five 5000m peaks. The mountains here are austere, with long glaciers and long northern valleys. The region is known in Russia as the "Mecca" for all serious mountaineers. The route grades in Bezengi are from 4 to 6(7) on Russian difficulty system. The area can be reached from Nalchik (reachable by plane or car from Mineral'vyee) via Cherek Bezengiyskiy river valley and Bezengi village. From the village, there is 18km trail to Bezengi mountaineering camp at 2200m. There are also few cabins in the area.
The most dramatic alpine scenery in the valley is the Bezengi Wall, a monumental mountain barrier 12km running west to east without any considerable depressions and rising above the glacier for nearly 2000m, located directly to the south of Bezengi camp. Main summits of the wall are from west to east: Lyalver (4350m), Gestola (4860m), Katyn-Tau (4974m), Dzhangi-Tau Main (5085m), Dzhangi-Tau West (5038m), Peak Shota Rustavelli (4960m), Skhara West (5057m) and Skhara Main (5183m). While north side of Bezingi Wall is huge ice wall with overhanging rock and large icefalls, southern (Georgian) side is mostly rock. It is equally if not more steep than the northern slopes.
Climbing on the wall is mostly done on the icy northern slopes. All climbs are long and difficult, many are also serious. Just about the only easier climbs on Bezingi Wall are North Ridge of Lyalvel (2A) and West Ridge of Gestola (3A), all the rest are graded 4B or more. Easiest route on the Shkhara main summit follows the NE Ridge from West (4B). Traverse of the whole Bezengi Wall from Shkhara to Lyalver is classic multiday climb (5B-6A).
Most important starting point for the climbs on the northern side of Bezingi Wall is Austrian bivouac located on the Bezengi glacier (5-6h walk from camp Bezingi).
Not far from Bezengi wall, on a horseshoe above Kunduym - Mizhirgi glacier, to SE of Camp Bezengi, lies impressive Northern Massive. Main summits of the wall are from west to east: Misses-Tau (4427m), Dykh-Tau Main (5204m), Peak Pushkina (5100m), Peak Borovikova (4888m), East (4927m) and West Mizhirgi (5025m), Krumkol (4676m), Peak Tihonova (4670m) and Koshtan-Tau (5151m).
Misses-Tau is closest to Camp Bezingi of the big peaks. It is most commonly climbed from Russian bivouac located to the SW of the summit (5-6h from Camp Bezingi). From here the summit climb follow South Ridge (3A). The same bivouac is starting point for Dych-Tau north Ridge (4B). North Ridge of Misses-Tau from the west is more difficult option (4A, started from different bivouac on the west side).
Further to the south it is possible to follow Bezingi glacier to the southern side of Northern massif to access climbs on Pik Semionov (4050m), Pik Freshfield (4050m), Pik Sella (4370m) and Bashka-Auz (4460m). Pik Semionov is easy (S Ridge at 1B), the rest are middle grade climbs along the normal routes (3A). From this valley, South Ridge of Dych-Tau (4B), West Ridge of Mizhirgi West (4B) abd South Ridge od Mizhirgi Main (5A) are much harder options.
Mizhirgi and Kunjüm-Mizhirgi glacier are use to climb Misses-Tau, Dych-Tau, Pik Pushkin (5100m), Mizhirgi, Khrumkol (4680m)Pik Tichonov (4670m) and Kostan-Tau (5150m) from northern side. The climbs are mostly started from a either Mirzhirgi camp on Mirzhirgi glacier (2-3h from Camp Bezengi) or from 3,900m bivouac (10-13h from Mirzhirgi camp). Routes from this side to the big peaks are all difficult (Koshtan-Tau NE Ridge (4A) and North Ridge of Kunjüm-Mizhirgi (4500m, 3A) being the least difficult options. North Faces of Dych-Tau, Mizhirgi and Koshtan-tau having numerous very long, difficult and serious climbs (starting at 5B).
Peaks located to the north of Mizhirgio glacier (to the East of Camop Bezingi) are generally not very famous and ave reasonably easy asents. There's one notable exception though, North face of Ullu-Auz-Bashi (4670m) is probably plenty hard for most climbers (5B).
Mount Kazbek is an extinct volcano located in the eastern part of Central Caucasus. Access is typically from Tbilisi (Georgia) by bus to Kazbek village (1700m, 150km from Tbilisi). Kazbek is pretty much the only famous climb in the area. However, Ortsveri (4365m) is regularly used by some parties as acclimatization climb (normal route grade 2).
From Kazbek village it's 1,5-2h walk to old Monestary Gergeti (possible camp). Old meteorological station on the slopes of Kazbek (3680m) nowadays serves as a climbing hut. Kazbek can be climbed year round, but climbing is most convenient between June and September. The area can have very cold temperatures, as the meteorological station on Kazbek (3680m) has recorded temperatures down to -47°C in the summer and -7+°C in the winter.
In the Eastern Caucasus, the weather is drier than in the Western and Central ranges, and the mountains form isolated massifs, rather than glaciated chains. At the far eastern end, semi-desert conditions prevail as the range approaches the Caspian Sea. The mountains rise out of barren foothills and are generally lower and less dramatic than their Central Caucasus neighbors. There are very few glaciers.