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On the Edge of Europe: Mountaineering in the Caucasus

On the Edge of Europe: Mountaineering in the Caucasus. Audrey Salkeld and José Luis Bermúdez. Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1993. 260 pages, 20 black-and-white photographs, 4 maps. £18.99.

In theory, the would-be adventurer to little known mountains should do research in whatever libraries are available. The visit then becomes truly profitable, with heightened awareness of people, terrain, history and climbing possibilities. Once realms covered by conventional guidebooks are left, this is more important, as shortness of time rations possibilities and informed decisions are at a premium. Though I frequently curse the supplications of mountain aspirants who fail to do homework, expecting someone effortlessly to produce a little known mountaineering gem, I wonder in my heart whether we read much before our first visits to the remoter ranges. Or was it that the deep interest came after, stimulated by experience and memory?

On the Edge of Europe is a fine reminder of what the Caucasus has to offer. It recollects the brilliant early climbing and exploration by Freshfield, Dent, Mummery, Longstaff and Raeburn, and provides an exciting outline of the German ascent of Ushba south from Svanetia organized by Rickmers in 1903. The drama of the loss of W.F. Donkin, Harry Fox, Kaspar Steich and Johann Fischer in 1888 is retold alongside Dent’s proof in 1889 that they had not been murdered by locals.

After 1917, non-Soviet contributions become few. The book concentrates on those, including the rare British visit of Hodgkin and Jenkins in 1937, that led by John Hunt in 1957, George Ritchie and Hamish Maclnnes’ traverse of Schkelda, our trip in 1970 and the fine ascent by Mick Fowler of Ushba in 1986. All in all, the main criticism is that there is only an extensive appendix to help bring us up to date with the mass of Soviet activity and that of other East Europeans, but taken in conjunction with F. Benders’s Classic Climbs in the Caucasus (Diadem, 1992), recently translated, it provides essential background to understanding the range and its history. Also useful is Vladimir Shateyev’s Degrees of Difficulty (The Mountaineers, 1987), which gives a harrowing account of winter in the range.

This book in part records the proceedings of the successful Alpine Club conference held at Plas y Brenin, North Wales, in November, 1992. A highlight was Robin Hodgkin conducting an entranced audience through slides of their visit in 1937. Aspirants whose imaginations are fired must note that recent war troubles the areas to the south of the range (Georgia and Abkhazia) though many non-CIS parties have been in the north since 1989.

An apology is due for writing about a book which includes a bit written by me. Most was as new and fascinating to me as to anyone else. This suggests that I was as guilty of neglecting homework before our visit in 1970 as any modernist. Deeper knowledge came later,

Paul Nunn, Alpine Climbing Group