Permission was granted by the Russian authorities for a party of British mountaineers under the leadership of Sir John Hunt to climb in the Caucasus in the summer of 1958. This was the first visit by a British party to the Caucasus since 1937, and every cordiality and assistance was extended to the team by the Russian authorities.
The party, which left England on June 25, 1958, and spent four weeks in the Caucasus, consisted of Sir John Hunt, Christopher Brasher, George Band, Alan Blackshaw, Ralph Jones, David Thomas, Derek Bull, Michael Harris, and John Neill.
They travelled by car to the border town of Brest Litovsk and thence • by train to Moscow. From Moscow they travelled by air to Mineralne Vody near the spa of Pyatigorsk in the foot-hills of the Caucasus ; from here they motored to Spartak Camp.
The list of climbs undertaken is as follows:
Pik Kavkaz, 13,282 ft. The whole party.
Pik Shchurovsky, 13,780 ft. The whole party.
Ushba, 15,453 ft. Attempt abandoned owing to bad snow conditions.
Gestola, 15,942 ft. -Ncill, Thomas, Gippenreuter.
Jangi Tau, 16,571 ft., by Schwarzgruber rib on North face Hunt, Brasher, Jones, Blackshaw. Summit not actually reached owing to dangerous snow conditions.
Shkara, 17,061 ft., by North ridge Harris, Bull, Band, Kutsovsky. Third ascent. (First ascent by Austrian party in 1930. Second ascent by Russian party in 1948.)
Dych Tau, 17,055 ft., South buttress of East peak-Band and Harris. First ascent. Descent by traverse to West peak (the higher) and down the North ridge.
‘You will be staying in the same quarters as the Young Masters’, said the camp second-in-command. This, with a tone of voice which implied that we had very little more to hope for in this life than that. We began, after a few days, to understand more deeply the significance of this remark.
In the U.S.S.R., the whole of the mountaineering activities are controlled by the Section of Alpinism of the Central Committee of Soviet Sport; but various trade associations, railway workers, scientific workers, geological workers, for instance, have their own camps in the mountains of Russia. There are permanent camp staffs and instructors, and people attend these courses at little or no cost to themselves.
The system of control, both in the individual and in the group, is very rigid. A novice will undergo a course of initiation lasting 21 days or a month, which includes instruction and exercise to keep himself fit in off-periods. At the end of this, he will climb and cross easy peaks and passes. Also, he receives the badge of 10 Mountaineer —First Step
Subsequently, he will attend further courses and be promoted to 1st, 2nd and 3rd class mountaineer. To get promotion, he must climb and lead routes in his class of difficulty. For example, it would be unthinkable for a 2nd class man to lead a new Grade V climb, but a 3rd class man must undergo rather more difficult conditions to make the coveted next step—to c Master of SportHe must have led several Grade V routes, new ones as well. He must have climbed either in the Pamir or Tien Shan or, a new clause, have done a Grade V route on a peak over 16,400 ft. Very few men become Masters before they are 28 years old.
The advantages of being a Master are varied. He gets a place, unofficially, at a University or Technical College, and will get a better job. He can have three months' leave a year to climb. He gets social prestige. He can also have some sort of freedom in the mountains.
Every group which goes out to climb must get permission to do so. They complete a form showing that they are fit, that they have the correct food and equipment, that their qualifying climbs are good enough, and how long they expect to be away from their base. If they exceed this ' Control Timeeven by five minutes, a rescue party must set out. They receive a stern censure direct from the Central Committee for exceeding control times and may be demoted in grade. It will count against them when they become eligible for Master. Masters of Sport have no such limits. They must, however, abide by control times. They can climb what they want, how they want. They can go for long pass-crossing jaunts through the mountains by themselves, unhindered.
In practice, it seems doubtful if all this control does any good at all. Parties give such long times that any rescue would be useless, if an accident occurred in the first half of the expedition. Against this is set the rule that parties must carry enough food and fuel for the whole of their time out. The danger here is obvious. The party is overloaded, becomes very slow and lacks mobility. It has an accident and it may be five or six days before it becomes necessary for another party to investigate, when it is too late anyway.
The other privilege accorded to Masters is the right to lead a party in the two most important competitions in Russian mountaineering. The first is the All Union Traverse Competition. This is for a party of any size and the result is judged on how long the group remained above a certain height and how many peaks they traversed and how difficult, generally, was the route they attempted. The second is the Best Ascent. This is for four people (two people receive penalty marks) for the best new route done in the year.
Some rather odd remarks came out of discussion on all this. The camp second-in-command at Bezingi returned after only two days instead of five. When asked why, he said, ‘1 had applied to do a new route of Grade III. It turned out to be IV, so I had to come back.' The Russians seem to have amazing confidence in saying, ‘I shall climb that new route, it will be V without having previously approached that particular route nearer than half a mile.
Finally, a word on equipment. The Russians climb in nails still. Their sleeping bags, windproofs, crampons and cooking equipment are much heavier than ours. Their tents are lighter and, some of us thought, better designed. The really interesting innovation is their ice-peg. This is 6" long and round, tapering to a point, but with a hexagon-shaped head. The ice-axe head has a hexagon hole which fits the peg head, and for removal, a spanner-like movement is applied and the peg comes straight out. Ice-axes vary; most are short, with a hammer head instead of an adze. Some have an ace-of-spades-shaped adze, some the conventional shape. The picks are shorter. There is no down-clothing of any description. The boots have a gaiter built into the upper. They have nylon-type rope which has a thicker cross-section than ours, and is difficult to handle. They do not use slings or etrier but have a triangular D- shape karabiner which, though rather heavy, is very good.
We arrived by lorry from the airport and had a wonderful reception at Spartak Camp. This camp lies at the foot on the Adil Sukh within five miles of the snout of the Shkhelda glacier. The climbing season was about to begin and from all over the Union mountaineers of the Spartak Trade Association had come to spend their annual holidays. The more advanced had their 6 sports plan ' ready for the season. The young Masters of Sport of Spartak had been brought together for three months' climbing in the Caucasus, some to be selected for big expeditions this year in the Tien Shan and Pamir, some preparing for next year, possibly Everest. In many cases, they had been set objectives to achieve during the season.
Our first objective was to try and get fit as fast as possible. With this end in view, we chose Kavkaz, 13,282 ft., to begin with. We walked up the Shkhelda glacier, then climbed its right bank and bivouacked at 9,843 ft. Early next morning, we started up, together with two Russians, who are to go to Everest. It would have been a very pleasant peak apart from tlie appalling rock; everything was rotten. Several of us were hit by falling stones and boulders. Most of us also felt the effects of altitude, but not enough to stop us admiring the wonderful view of Elbruz, Donguz-Orun, Shkhelda and Ushba, and in the distance the Bezingi mountains. We returned to our bivouac as a storm was approaching and arrived later, soaked to the skin, at Spartak.
Our next plan was to ascend the Ushba icefall, then to climb local peaks and to finish our stay in this area with a grand expedition on Ushba. We moved up the Shkhelda glacier again, following it beyond its right-angled turn and stopped at night at the German Bivouac. Next day, saying good-bye to some friendly Russians also there, we ascended the icefall. This was narrow and deep-walled but not too difficult, apart from a rather roundabout route. We arrived on the plateau below Ushba in a white-out and camped at once. The evening was clear, but there were odd ominous clouds about. Next day, the clouds were again thick, but as we climbed Shchurovsky, 13,780 ftt, the cloud sometimes broke into windows and through one of these we saw the massive North ridge of Ushba starting from nowhere and ending in infinity.
From Shchurovsky we descended towards Chatin Tau, crossed beneath it and joined the col between it and little Ushba, which we intended to climb next. Now the mist became really thick. We had some difficulty in retracing our steps to the camp, as it had begun to snow.
It went on snowing for four days. We were joined from time to time by groups of Russian climbers until the village of tents held 17 people, including one girl. As we were attempting Ushba, we were lightly equipped and there were not enough tents for all of us to stay in comfortably, so we dug a snow-cave. The Russians are particularly adept at this and use this technique more often than we do, both in the high mountains in Asia and in the Caucasus. Our plans altered day by day. At first, because we had enough food and fuel for ten days, we decided to wait, both for the snow to stop and for conditions to become more stable. Later it became apparent that we should be unlikely to traverse both peaks, as we had intended, but would have to be content with one, possibly the North peak. Still later, during the fourth day, it was realized that we should have to abandon our plans altogether and extricate ourselves without delay. The reason for this was twofold. The first was that we had to travel for two days to Bezingi and we might as well do it in bad weather ; secondly, as over 3 ft. of snow had fallen and more was possibly to come, the sooner we got down the icefall the better, before it became avalanche-prone.
In a complete white-out our leading party set out, only to return some minutes later because they could see nothing. Later a Russian party set off, armed with a long pole to test the snow for the crevasses. The situation was fairly dramatic, as frequently the eyes lost focus and it was impossible to know how far, in any direction, the next step would take you. While the party, now fifteen strong, in groups of three moved into the trough of the icefall, the sun came through a little and the avalanches started. They were only small ones but, because of the confined space, sounded larger. It was with some relief that we regained the glacier and rested at the German Bivouac.
We left Spartak Camp and went by lorry round to Bezingi village. The approach to the village is along the Cherek gorge, with its impressive walls a thousand feet high and the river roaring beneath. It made rather a harrowing journey. Twice the lorry driver asked us to get out as he thought that the risk was too great. We had been lucky in Moscow because some of the members of the Academy of Sciences' party had taken a large quantity of our stores with them to their camp above the Bezingi glacier. Now they met us and we put our camp next to theirs, then joined them as their guests for supper. During supper we discussed the climbing in the area of the glacier. The mountains form an enormous cirque round the head of the Bezingi with the top of the walls as high as 7,000 ft. above it.
The main peaks are Dych Tau. Koshtan Pan, Shkara, Jangi Tau, Katuin Tail, Gestola and Lyalver. The first two are peaks by themselves, rising to above 16,400 ft., the last five are really higher points on the Bezingi wall, with Shkara, the second highest mountain in Europe, at one end and Lyalver, approximately 15,100 ft., at the other. The wall itself is at an average angle of between 45°-55° and parts of it are particularly liable to avalanches.
Our first plan was to split into three parties and climb some of the peaks on the North wall of the cirque. George Band, Mike Harris, Derek Bull with Anatoly Kutsovsky, a Russian Master of Sport, went to try the North ridge of Shkara. Sir John Hunt, Alan Blackshaw, Chris Brasher and I went to try the North face of Jangi Tau with a possibility of going on to Katuin Tau ; and the third party went to Gestola and Lyalver: in it were John Neill, David Thomas and Eugene Gippenreuter, our Russian friend and interpreter.
George Band and his party achieved a magnificent ascent with a new variation on their route; crossing the top of Shkara, they descended the North-east ridge and were back in camp five days later. John Neill and his party climbed Gestola, but because of very difficult snow and lack of time turned back just beneath the top of Lyalver, taking three days in all.
East half of Bezingi wall showing Shakara, 17,064 ft., which was climbed by buttress leading to highest point.
Climbing on Jangi Tau, 16,900 ft.
Our party gained the bivouac site on the glacier and left the next morning at 2.30 a.m. Our route was up an enormous buttress, well protected from avalanches, once the crest of it was reached. We reached the crest at 9.30 a.m. and then moved up rock, snow and ice covered with snow. Sir John led a difficult section of snow-covered ice at an angle of 60° and from then on we rather slipped behind the schedule we had set ourselves, because of the difficulty of the conditions. Throughout the day the avalanches poured off the wall around us, hardly a moment went by without the roar of moving snow and ice.
At 8 o'clock in the evening we had climbed the final snow arete, some 1,000 ft. long, and bivouacked on a small plateau about 1,000 ft. below the summit ridge. The night was a cold one and even with all spare clothes on, a down suit, and a windproof suit, I felt cold sharing a Zdarsky sack. The night sky was not very promising and it snowed during the night. The next day we started off at 7.30 a.m. Once again we were wading through waist-deep snow, which had blown across the face and settled on the top section, which was not so steep. We moved diagonally upwards to reach an uncorniced part of the ridge. Alan Blackshaw overcame a berg- schrund with a good display of technical ability, and the party moved very slowly upwards through the appalling snow. We decided not to go on to Katuin Tau as now there was too little time left, so we left our heavy gear behind. We crossed an avalanche track, about 3 feet deep and 40 yards wide, and at this part Chris Brasher was in front with Sir John, followed by Alan Blackshaw and I on another rope.
The first indication of any incident came to us, at the back, when we looked up and saw only Chris in front. At the same time he shouted and told us that Sir John was in a crevasse and to hurry up. As we were now at nearly 16,500 ft., and the snow was waist-deep, this was rather a difficult request. However, we struggled up, dragging out spare rope as we went, until we anchored ourselves on the slope below the crevasse. What had happened was that Chris had moved across first and expressed doubt about the stability of the snow, so he had belayed further up the slope. Sir John had followed and, perhaps because of his greater weight, had broken through the snow into the crevasse and fortunately landed on a snow-bridge some 20 ft. down. We threw in the spare rope and in a few moments out came Sir John looking like a worried Father Christmas. We then discussed the situation. It was nearly midday; the snow was appalling, the area was likely to be swept by avalanches, and we were still only 300 ft. below the ridge. We decided to go down.
After a rest at our original site the night before, we descended the top snow arete and bivouacked. Next day, we descended by climbing and roping down to the lowest point of the crest of the buttress. The snow slopes up which we had previously come were in a very poor condition ; by throwing a snowball on to the slope it was possible to start quite a respectable avalanche. We then had to rappel about a thousand feet down the rock, from pegs and slings. We crossed the lower seracs as night was falling and at last, at 10.30 p.m., found our first bivouac on the glacier.
Several interesting points came up for discussion after this climb, which was typical of the routes we did. The first was on the right type of sleeping equipment. It was decided that a light tent is the answer, not tent-sacks. Next, we realized how narrow a margin there is in the Caucasus between things going well and a disaster. It did not take much to think of the possibility of a six-day storm at the top of one of these routes and what would happen unless there was far greater support than we had. Again, if a slight accident occurred to the party, what measures could they adopt to extricate themselves ? Neither in the Alps nor the Himalaya is a party so ‘out on a limb ' as in the central Caucasus. They are very serious mountains.
After this, we gathered again at our Base Camp at the end of the glacier and reorganized ourselves. We had several small casualties, and six fit members were left to carry out the rest of our plans. Harris and Band had spotted an unclimbed buttress on the South face of Dych Tau, which they decided to attempt; while Hunt, Blackshaw, Brasher and Eugene Gippenreuter would try the Mummery route on the same peak.
As it happened, owing to illness, Hunt's party had to turn back when two-thirds of the route had been done. Harris and Band, however, put up a very hard first ascent, and descended the North ridge having traversed both summits. Some of the rock climbing they classed as very severe, while the ice work was equally hard. They returned a few hours after their ' control-time' was up and a rescue party had to set out to look for them, as we had agreed upon under the protocol signed by us in Moscow.
We had originally intended to close our operations for the summer by crossing the main ridge by way of the Zanner pass and journeying through Swanetia to the Black Sea to spend a couple of days there ; but now because of the time we returned promptly to Moscow by air. Then by train to the border and back to our cars and home.
DYCH TAU, 17,055 FT., SEEN FROM JANGI TAU, SHOWING BAND AND HARRIS' ROUTE ON SOUTH BUTTRESS (FIRST ASCENT).
In retrospect, I feel that a party should have a longer time in the mountains, cost permitting, to get the best out of such a large area. The Russians could not have been more helpful or more pleasant to us, and nothing was spared to make us feel at home and to give us all possible assistance.