Mt Elbrus: The Frosty Caucasus

Exploring southern Russia’s wild west, Chris Raven and Simon Raven pay a little visit to Mt Elbrus considered to be the tallest mountain in Europe.
Mt Elbrus, South Ossetia-Alania, Russia. By Simon Raven
Extract from their book: BLACK SEA CIRCUIT
By Chris 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. 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 shop, an anxious anticipation. Si sparks up a conversation with a ruddy-faced chap from Moscow, who strides around 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!” The guide named Pavel laughs, he has a great sense of humour. When he hears about our quest to drive full circle around the Black Sea, 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’.

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Turkey’s Black Sea Mountains

During an epic road trip driving full circle around the Black Sea, Chris Raven and Simon Raven, explore the high pasture village of Ayder in the Kackar mountains, in a region of Anatolian Turkey that is home to the Hemsin and the legend of the Laz Big foot.
Turkey’s Pontic Alps. The Kackar Mountains. Photo by Simon Raven
Extract from the book: BLACK SEA CIRCUIT
By Chris Raven
 
Waving farewell to Georgia we enter ancient Anatolia. To the left of the road the land rises steeply into the lush green Pontic Alps, a mountain range that stretches parallel with the southern Black Sea coast for a thousand kilometres. Studying the road atlas, Si reveals that directly south across this geological barrier lie Mount Ararat on the Armenian border and the predominantly Kurdish provinces in the southeast of the country bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Curious to explore these mysterious green mountains that are covered by alder, chestnuts and hornbeams, we continue west on the E70 highway to the small coastal town of Ardesen. Si turns sharply inland, and we pass tea growing on the hillside and climb steadily through the Firtina gorge into the rugged Kackar Mountains. This picturesque region is home to the highest part of the Pontic Mountains, with the tallest peak, Kackar Dagi, reaching an elevation of 3,937 metres. We begin to see winch wires stretching across the gorge, which are used for hoisting goods up to the wooden tea houses. An elderly woman and a small boy crank a handle and send a small basket over the river to a man standing on the opposite hillside. Turkey is the fifth largest producer of tea in the world, with 225,000 tonnes of the leaf being grown in 2012. Tea was introduced to Turkey in the 1940s and 1950s and was offered as an alternative to coffee, which had become expensive and comparatively rare.

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Driving the Georgian Military Highway

There are few roads in the world more spectacular than the Georgian Military Highway. Join Chris Raven and Simon Raven as they descend the GMH from the Russian border to the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi on a road trip of a lifetime.

Dramatic landscape on the Georgian Military Highway, Caucasus Mountains.

Photo by Chris Raven

Extract from their book: Black Sea Circuit

By Chris Raven

A dusty, unpaved stretch of the Georgian Military Highway winds through the Dariali Gorge the “Gate of the Alans”.

Pumped full of adrenaline, Si squeezes past a truck from Azerbaijan on a narrow shelf below a 1,800 metre vertical wall of granite. I try to remove the thought from my mind of rocks smashing through the windows, or a landslide forcing us into the steep valley below. This dramatic and ancient trade route is considered to be one of the most romantic places in the Caucasus, with both Lermontov and Pushkin drawing inspiration from the region. Concentrating on the road, Si reminds me to keep my eyes peeled for lammergeyers “bearded vultures” and griffon vultures nesting on the cliffs. In this remote region of Georgia there are plans to construct a new hydropower plant that would generate electricity to be used locally in winter and exported in the summer to Turkey, Syria and Iraq. If not built with care the threat of environmental disaster seems like a terrifying possibility.

 
After half an hour of negotiating switchback corners and hairpin bends, we cross the Tergi Bridge and arrive in the northeastern Georgian settlement of Kazbegi (1,797m). In the distance I can see the 14th century Holy Trinity Tsminda Sameba Church perched on the adjacent hilltop. The setting sun kisses the jagged horizon and silhouettes a group of hikers making their way up the mountain. In the main square we are immediately surrounded by a group of hard-faced local men touting rooms. A guy appears suddenly at my window. He has flecks of grey in his wiry bushy hair and deep lines embedded in his face. Wearing a brown woollen tank top over a checked shirt, he has the manner of a mountain warrior and despite his age he looks as strong as an ox. I notice his teeth are yellow and decaying and his lips are dry and cracked. The smell of tobacco drifts inside the car.
  ‘You want room?’ he asks, the corner of his mouth curling upwards in a slight smirk.
  I shake my head. ‘No, we go to Tbilisi. Can we buy car insurance here?’
  He drops his smile and raises his bushy, out of control eyebrows. ‘What?’ he growls, fixing his stare.
  ‘We need to buy insurance, for the car,’ Si adds, knocking his fists together to demonstrate a collision.
  The tout mutters something under his breath to the sun-dried gentlemen standing around him.
  ‘No room?’
  ‘No,’ I smile.
  Exhaling a deep sigh, he turns sharply away and marches over to a young traveller struggling up the hill with his rucksack. Si swings the Volvo over to a nearby petrol station. I ask the guy working the pump about car insurance, but we are both suddenly distracted by the surreal sight of a camel walking along the road. A man with long white hair runs alongside the animal and barks orders at its backside. I turn back to the petrol pump attendant, who looks equally puzzled. He shrugs his shoulders and suggests we try in the capital city of Tbilisi.
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