Russia – Caucasus

On Top of Europe

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Climbing Elbrus, 24-30 August 2013

On 29 August 2013 we summited Mt Elbrus, at 5,642 m the highest mountain in Europe. It is located in Russian Caucasus, a beautiful region of mountains, valleys, villages and friendly local people. If you ask us, the best region in Russia! We climbed with a small group of 5 people guided by Liza. 

We met with our group and guide in Terskol, a village in the Baksan Valley at the foot of Elbrus. Here we are preparing all our things in our hotel room at the nice and friendly Hotel Salaam.DSC01220_small

We brought the skis, just in case! Here going up with the cable car.DSC01226_small

And after the cable car, the nice old-fashioned chairlift. Marco is in front with the skis.DSC01248_small

And at the top of the chairlift we arrived at our base camp, altitude approximately 3700 m.DSC01255_small

The base camp of Elbrus, for the south face standard route, is often just referred to as “the barrels”, see photo below. The barrels are a bit run down and especially the toilet facilities are infamous, but lots of people stay here before their climb to the peak of Elbrus. We stayed in a nicer and newer camp next to the barrels.DSC01299_small

Here Marco is getting installed in our small camp. Quite nice actually!             DSC01261_small

Japanese team-member Ken outside our accommodation with a view to Mt Elbrus and the toilets.DSC01263_small

Already on the first day we went on a small acclimatization hike to the Diesel Hut (Priyut Hut). To the left our Japanese team-member Ken, to the right our two Indonesian team-members Jay and Ingka, and in the middle Tahir, our local friend who came with us to practice his Japanese and English! DSC01274_small

It was a brilliant day and we stayed a bit to enjoy the view over the Caucasus Mountains.DSC01280_small

Panorama from the Diesel Hut (click on photo for better view).DSC01284_small

The Diesel Hut with a bit of rusty iron rubbish.                                                DSC01275_small

A lonely barrel with nice colours and a stunning view.  DSC01297_small

Back down at the camp, we checked out the fleet of “snow cats”. On the night of the summit climb the snow cats usually bring people up to the Pashtuhova Rocks at some 4,670 m from where the climb begins. If you start the climb straight from “the barrels”, the ascent to the west summit is some 2,000 vertical meters as opposed to some 1,100 vertical meters from the rocks.DSC01266_small

On our second day at base camp our group hiked up to the Pashtuhova Rocks at 4,670 m.DSC01302_small

We took the skis, it was great!                                                    DSC01303_small

On the third day we had a rest before going for the summit. We enjoyed the sun and the fantastic view from outside our hut.DSC01308_small

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Time to read a book and relax…                                  DSC01312_small

From the camp we had a great view to Elbrus. To the left is the main west summit, 5,643 m, and to the right the slightly lower east summit. The standard route goes past the Pashtuhova Rocks (where the wide snow cat tracks end straight below the east summit), then the route traverses below the east summit to the saddle between the two peaks, and finally it climbs up the steep sides of the west summit to the peak.DSC01428_small

Summit day arrived. We left base camp at 2 am and took the snow cat up to the Pashtuhova Rocks at 4,670 m. From there we started the steep traverse across the base of the east summit. Here the sun is just rising to the east. The weather was brilliant.DSC01322_small

Shadow of the main summit of Elbrus cast by the rising sun.      DSC01328_small

Marco on the traverse.                                  DSC01326_small

View from the traverse towards the saddle and the west summit. The next 3 photos are from team member Ken. DSC00683_small

Malene in the saddle, preparing the goggles.DSC00685_small

Finally in the sun, it quickly got hot! Here we are slowly conquering the last steep climb up to the west summit.DSC00690_small

And finally we arrived! At the top of Europe, 5,642 m, with a brilliant view and in fantastic weather!DSC01331_small

Malene enjoying the summit!                        DSC01338_small

Marco and Ken!                                                    DSC01342_small

Fantastic view towards the south-southwest and into Georgia. Click on the photo for a better view.DSC01350_small

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The summit! There was not a cloud on the deep-blue sky and it was quite warm. The perfect summit day.                                                       DSC01353_small

On our way down we had more time to enjoy the views. Here a view towards Georgia in the south from the saddle between the east and west summits. DSC01361_small

Marco and Ken on the traverse.                 DSC01367_small

View down along the glacier to the valley.DSC01376_small

The traverse is quite steep – and it was hard to go up in the morning!DSC01375_small

Panorama towards Georgia to the south (click on the photo for a better view).DSC01377_small

Finally down again at the camp, we could let the sun set over a brilliant summit day.DSC01461_small

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Photo reportage from “The Barrels”

We must admit that we like these places full of left-over “rubbish” from a former era, lost in time, abandoned. The barrels are just a place like this. So we had a wander around and took some photos. We hope you will enjoy as well!

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The upper chair lift station.                           DSC01380_small

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Unfortunately the cafe was closed.                DSC01400_small

The barrels.                                                                DSC01390_small

The glacier to the east of the barrels. Every year, this glacier spits out dead soldiers from the second World War. The soldiers at a nearby military camp finds them. DSC01406_small

A first view to the toilet facilities at the barrels. The toilets are placed on top of a ruin, a convenient “dump site”.DSC01404_small

Here the toilets from the other side. On the left side of the toilet-ruin you can see the abandoned old toilets, the small dark hole is the “shit hole”. Interesting to just leave it lying there…… And as a mirror image, in the right hand side of the photo you have the old collapsed pole for the electricity wires lying there next to the new one. DSC01409_small

The barrels, cheerfully painted in the colours of the Russian flag. DSC01418_small

The central square at the barrels, meeting before the summit day. DSC01414_small

At the barrels. On the door it reads “THIS IS NOT A CAFE”. DSC01411_small

The central square in front of the barrels. DSC01421_small

From everywhere you have a brilliant view to Mt Elbrus!DSC01427_small

A bit more rubbish lying around. The orange stuff is part of a snow cat.DSC01434_small

The fence on the back side of the barrels is made with the wires from the old anchor lift, the anchors still attached. DSC01431_small

Stairs.                                                                                                   DSC01464_small

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Elbrus

30 August 2013. We just came down after a fantastic climb to the summit of Elbrus, our last big mountain of the trip. As soon as possible we will post all the photos. Now we will absolutely have to sleep after the cook here at the hotel served us a big plate of “beshbarmak” for dinner! Good night from Terskol!

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Hay and Honey

23 August 2013. We took all the small back roads through valleys and over hills to reach Terskol at the foot of Mount Elbrus. In Terskol we met our guide Liza and our group for the climb, more about that later. But the drive to Terskol was really a joy, North Caucasus is just beautiful!

So, this is where the honey comes from! Driving through the hills of northern Caucasus we saw lots of these mobile honey-bee stations.  IMG_3262_small

And this is where the hay comes from. This time of year, everybody seems to be out cutting hay in the hills, and they are cutting it by hand with scythes!   DSC01177_small

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A Lada in a field of flowers!                          DSC01185_small

And then suddenly, literally in the middle of nowhere, there was a cinema! The kino-teatr “NART”. DSC01175_small

In the Baksan Valley we found lots of tasty fruits: Plums, apricots, apples and pears.DSC01201_small

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And also in the Baksan Valley we found these nice monuments dotted along the road. DSC01200_small

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Tomorrow we will head up on Elbrus to 3,700 m where we will acclimatize for a few days before attempting the summit. We hope for good luck!

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Why is there always something to do?

22 August 2013. So, driven absolutely mad by the full moon, we returned to Kislovodsk to eat more chocolate croissants. But……life on the road is not easy! The day started with a 10 km run up and down the steep hills outside Kislovodsk, then a more or less warm “shower” in the small blue bucket outside the car. And then finally, as we headed down to the waiting chocolate croissants, very hungry, Frida suddenly had a flat tire! Aaarrrrrrgh! We got it changed and headed down to Kislovodsk to find a tire repair shop…..poor the croissants, they had to wait! Fortunately we found the best tire repair shop in the Caucasus!

Edvard (to the far right) and his father Albert at their tire repair shop i Kislovodsk. Great guys who did a great job!!!DSC01139_small

But we were wrong if we thought that now we could relax. Next thing we found out that our homemade japanese umeshu was leaking! Aaaaaarrrrgh! The solution was a mix of extra strong quality plastic bags for human-waste (!) from our Aconcagua expedition plus electrical tape, gaffa tape, insulating tape for windows and finally a metal ring closure (what is it called in english?). Anyways, it works!

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Finally we could let the sun set over a long day.

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Acclimatization

16-22 August 2013. We are preparing to climb Mount Elbrus here in the Caucasus Mountains and so after 2 months of climbing nothing we have to make an effort. We went into the valleys north and northeast of Elbrus to spend some time in altitude and to hike around a bit. Generally, we had very grey weather! The valleys were still beautiful and we did have some sunny days as well but……also quite a bit of rain!

Here is Marco, acclimatizing quite well under his Japanese umbrella.DSC01030_small

Malene is a bit more sceptical…….     DSC01029_small

We could not complain about the view and we shared it with 4 eagles that kept circling above our heads. But it was very grey!  DSC01026_small

Here is our camp in the Sukhan valley. Beautiful place!DSC01033_small

And we were quite alone.                    DSC00994_small

We only met the guys who came up the valley to cut the grass for hay. They were working with scythes.IMG_3249_small

Beautiful colours and lots of wild flowers.IMG_3242_small

The hills were all capped by big limestone massifs.DSC00998_small

We were hiking through the hills and enjoying the views towards the higher Caucasus Mountains and Georgia in the south.DSC01000_small

Other days we had better luck with the weather. Here Marco is relaxing after a long hike and a good “shower”.DSC01022_small

And here cooking a good pasta for dinner.        DSC00975_small

Here we are in another valley close to the Verkhnaya Balkariya village.DSC01039_small

More flowers.                                          DSC01054_small

The village of Verkhnaya Balkariya was a quiet and friendly place with lots of cows, lots of chicken and lots of fields with cabbage. DSC01050_small

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More or less friendly dog….                  DSC01047_small

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Here the local “magasin” to the right.DSC01042_small

Some of the small villages have fantastic signs or rather monuments with the city name and some illustration of the main trade or activity going on there. The village of Babugent below seemed to have a lot going on!DSC01080_small

Next we drove into the Chegem valley. The road gets narrower and narrower…DSC01110_small

And then suddenly you arrive at this waterfall where there is complete traffic chaos, you can ride a camel, a donkey or a horse, eat shashlyk and buy whatever kind of knitted stuff you would like!DSC01116_small

Knitted stuff and knitted stuff and knitted stuff!                                            DSC01119_small

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Then it was more peaceful further up the Chegem valley. It was a grey day so the colours are not brilliant, but below are just a few impressions from the valley. DSC01062_small

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And in between valleys we went to Nalchik to buy korean style salads, bread and fruits!DSC01098_small

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Finally, after 6 days in the valleys, the temptation got too strong……we just had to return to Kislovodsk to eat another chocolate croissant at the french bakery and to drink another cup of that smelly natural mineral water! Probably it was the full moon driving us mad… DSC01128_small

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The Russian Drinking Culture

12-13 August 2013. Russian drinking culture is not only about vodka! The Russians (and other ex-Soviet republics) also have a special drinking culture when it comes to natural mineral water. The mineral waters of the North Caucausus was first noted by an Arab traveler in 1377 but the area only started to be developed as a Russian “kurort” (health resort) in the early 1800s. In 1863, the “Balneal Society” was established in Pyatigorsk (balneology = the treatment of disease by bathing, including also drinking of mineral waters and treatment with medical muds etc). In the Soviet Union, the “kurorts” were taken to a whole new level with the founding of the “Balneal University” in Pyatigorsk and in 1960 all resorts in the USSR were handed over to the labor unions so that industry workers could be awarded with a healty treatment holiday in one of the sanatoriums. Nowadays in Russia there is still thousands of working sanatoriums, some modernised, others still old style.

The main drinking hall in Kislovodsk in North Caucasus. It is open at specific hours during the day (7-9, 11-14, 16-19) when anybody can enter and drink the natural mineral water for free.                      IMG_3123_small

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Inside the grande drinking hall in Kislovodsk. Marco is eager to get started with his “balneal” treatment – but also a bit nervous…
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In Kislovodsk, you can drink either natural sulfuric water or natural dolomitic water. The type of water is indicated on the elegant lamps above the drinking stations – and each type of water can be enjoyed either hot or cold. IMG_3134_small

Here Marco is pouring his first cup of cold sulfuric water.IMG_3136_small

And the healthy effect is immediate! Actually, it tastes slightly better than it smells. IMG_3138_small

Others understand how to enjoy the treatment in a more elegant and calm way. 
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And others again need a good rest to digest the smelly waters!
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The drinking ritual needs to be photographed, we were not the only ones. DSC00873_small

And the whole scene is being surveyed by ladies dressed in hospital uniforms. For your comfort!                                    IMG_3126_small

Outside the drinking hall there is a relaxed holiday atmosphere. Here the main walking street of Kislovodsk.IMG_3174_small

Dressed up ladies are enjoying a stroll in between treatments.
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Below are the Main Kislovodsk Baths, now closed for renovation. IMG_3162_small

And the Oktober Baths, unfortunately also closed. Note that the clock is showing Moscow time like in all train stations across Russia.IMG_3101_small

All sorts of souvenirs are sold along the main stroll. Malene would have loved to spend her pocket money here when she was 7 years old! DSC00820_small

The situation of more or less everything seems to be sorted out on the benches along the walking street….IMG_3176_small

….and meanwhile the husbands are enjoying the peace in a quiet hidden corner!DSC00803_small

Also in Kislovodsk, Marco captured these nice images of the classical Russian public toilet. The price is displayed on the note next to the small hatch, 10 Rubles per visit. And notice the roll of classical, grey, slightly elastic toilet paper. Once you have paid the 10 Rubles you are allowed to tear off as much toilet paper as you think you might need….under the strict and critical eyes of the attendant!DSC00809_small

Actually, this particular toilet attendant was not there when we arrived. She was busy feeding a small squirrel nearby.DSC00806_small

She quickly came though, to complete the transaction – Rubles vs toilet paper.DSC00808_small

Next report will be on our acclimatization efforts before the Elbrus ascent……and we need your support!….it is raining and the border to Georgia is only a couple of hours drive away with its promises of wonderful Georgian foods and wines! Elbrus, Elbrus, Elbrus, Elbrus……………

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Finally!

Finally we found our small piece of heaven in Russia! It is located in the Caucasus, in the very southwestern corner of Russia where the beautiful Caucasus Mountains are rising on the border between Russia and Georgia.  

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14-15 August 2013. We drove about 80 km south from the small town of Kislovodsk towards Mount Elbrus. It was grey and rainy but we found a nice place to camp in the hills at the foot of Elbrus. In the morning we stumbled out of bed with our cameras to capture the brilliant view of the highest peak in Europe (5,642 m). 

7 am                                                    DSC00916_small

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10 am                                                  DSC00921_small

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In the Valleys North of Elbrus

14-15 August 2013. We left the Russian “Kurort” of Kislovodsk in the afternoon after drinking another couple of glasses of the healthy sulfuric mineral water which has made the city popular as a “spa-town” since the early 1800s. More on this “drinking culture” in a later post… We drove up the beautiful valleys south of Kislovodsk, towards Mount Elbrus. We were hoping to arrive close to Elbrus, to enjoy the view and to acclimatize a bit in the altitude.

We started out in brilliant weather.             IMG_3184_small

As we got closer to Elbrus, the weather got grey. Typical for the afternoon. There were lots of small summer camps of the local mountain people with sheep, goats and cows out and about in the green fields. IMG_3215_small

Possibly the most beautiful goat in the Caucasus!?IMG_3213_small

Summer camp.                                       IMG_3212_small

The next morning we climbed a small peak next to our camp. DSC00934_small

View to the large “summer camp” in the valley below. We went there the day before but did not take any pictures, because we thought it was some kind of refugee camp! We asked a couple of Russian hikers we met on the way down and they explained to us that it was just camping; the local people come here for a couple of weeks during the summer to enjoy the fresh air and the pure water! DSC00931_small

And then it started raining! We had just been told by a couple of “rangers” that we were camping illegally in the National Park….hmm…..anyways…so we started heading out the valley again.             DSC00939_small

After the rain the landscape was beautiful! DSC00946_small

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