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Asia, CIS, Caucasus Ski Traverse

Caucasus Ski Traverse. I made two attempts on the ski traverse of the Caucasus. The first attempt was in 1994, in which the party managed the first part of the traverse. On the second attempt the party failed on the first part, but completed the second section. The Anglo-German Caucasus Ski Traverse 1994 took place between March 19 and April 10, 1994. Its members were David Hamilton (Leader), Matthias Hammer, John Kentish and Mark Scarratt. The expedition proposed to make a high-level traverse of the central Caucasus from the town of Elbrus to Verkhney Balkaria (ca. 110 km) and crossing some nine high passes on route. To reduce load carrying three food caches were preplaced by helicopter along the route, and for logistical reasons we started the route from Verkhney Balkaria. A day of mostly walking brought us to the start of the Dykhsu Gorge, where deep snow, trees and boulders made progress difficult. Easier glaciated terrain brought us to the foot of the Dykhiauz Pass by the end of the third day. An abortive attempt to cross led to an ice cliff, which was impossible for us to descend, or a double corniced ridge to traverse. We retreated to easier ground, where a miserable camp ensued. A logistical error led to fuel supplies being exhausted.

The next morning in worsening weather we re-climbed the pass to a different point, where descent of the steep ice below was possible. The descent culminated in a rappel over an overhanging ice cliff. We reached our supplies at the Austrian Hut, below the Bezingi Wall, where we remained storm-bound for two nights. Very dangerous snow conditions, further fuel shortages and a recurrent tropical illness in one team member lead us to abandon the traverse. The retreat to Bezingi took a further two days in the deep snow.

The 1996 Caucasus Ski Traverse took place between March 9 and March 31, 1996. Its members were John Kentish (Leader), Steve Jennings, Phil Wickens and Vadim Buslik (Russian), who joined at the last minute. The expedition planned to make a traverse of the central Caucasus similar to that attempted in 1994. This time we commenced at Verkhney Balkaria. A more complex route was planned, reducing the time spent in Georgian territory, but increasing the number of passes to be crossed. An abortive attempt reached the Dykhsu Gorge, where illness affecting three members necessitated withdrawal for recovery. Due to time constraints we restarted the traverse from the Bezingi Valley, missing out the Dykhiauz Pass. Vadim felt unable to accompany us on the traverse, but gave us logistical support up to the first main pass. At the Zanner Pass we collected our food and fuel, which had been pre-placed by porters. A good day’s skiing took us over the Semi Pass and to the top of the Kitlod Pass. The descent took us down an extremely steep (ca. 65°) slope of very poor snow. We crossed the Tuiber Pass and Laskhedar Pass before a storm caused an enforced stop for two nights on the Karakaya Pass. In continuing poor weather and whiteout conditions we crossed the Mestia Pass. Its descent was worrying, with constant threats of avalanches, crevasses and falling over seracs or cliffs in the whiteout. After a night in the Mestia Hut, we descended to civilization down the Adyr Su Valley, abandoning the crossing of the Gumachi Pass due to avalanche danger. The traverse from the Bezingi Alpinist’s Camp to Elbrus town took nine days.

In 1992 I had crossed the Gumachi Pass, so had actually completed the traverse in total, albeit over three visits. The central part of the traverse was originally done on skis by a Russian party in June 1947.1 believe ours was the earliest time of year that a crossing had been completed, and it was the first crossing by a non-Russian/CIS party.

John Kentish, United Kingdom