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Elbrus History and Ethnography

The Elbrus Region is the border area between two countries - the Russian Federation and the Republic of Georgia. Kabardino-Balkaria, as part of Russia, and the historic province of Svanetia in Georgia face each other across the Main Caucasian ridge. In spite of the territorial proximity of the Caucasian peoples, their development took place in certain isolation due to he mountainous terrain.

Kabardino-Balkaria is a member of the Russian Federation, lying in the center of the Greater Caucasus, and occupies its highest section and adjacent plains. In an area of 12400 sq.km, mountains occupy 70% of the territory. The population is 768,000 (1990), comprising Kabardinians, Balkarians and Russians. The capital is Nalchik.

Kabardinians ethnically belong to the group of Northern Caucasian peoples. Their Kabardino-Cherkess tongue belongs to the Iberian-Caucasian languages of the Indo-European language family. The written language is based on Cyrillic.

Balkarians are related to Turkic peoples and speak a Turkic type of language. Their written language is also based on Cyrillic.
Both Kabardinians and Balkarians are mostly Muslims (Sunnites).

First Ascent of Mt. Elbrus

The lower East summit of Elbrus, 5621 m, was first climbed by the Kabardinian native Killar Khashirov in 1829 who was at the time employed as a guide by a Russian army scientific expedition. Killar Kashirov accompanied the expedition consisting of soldiers of the general Emmanuel, hero of the Patric war of 1812.The expedition was backed by the Russian Academy of Sciences. The west, slightly higher summit, 5642 m, was only ascended in 1874 by a Balkarian guide, Akhia Sottajev together with three English climbers: Gardner, Grove and Walker and a Swiss climber Knubel.

Once most of the high mountains of the Alps had been climbed and categorized, Britain's Victorian mountaineers started to look further afield. Interest grew in the big unclimbed peaks of the Caucasus and of the 10 highest mountains in the range. Nine were first climbed by members of the Alpine Club.

Elbrus' lower East summit, 5621 m, was first climbed by the Kabardinian Killar Khashirov in 1829 who, at that time, was employed as a guide by a Russian army scientific expedition. There remains some discussion about this claim; in Western circles, it is believed that the East Peak was first summited by Freshfield, Moore, Tucker, Sottajev, Datosov, and Devouassoud in July 1868.

The west, and slightly higher summit, was only ascended in 1874 by a Balkarian guide, Akhia Sottajev, together with three English climbers: Gardner, Grove and Walker, and a Swiss climber Knubel.

Prior to the 1917 October Revolution, the peaks had only seen ascents from 20 or so groups of Russian and foreign climbers. Little climbing took place until 1928, when German and Austrian climber started returning to the Caucasus. In 1929, a small hut was constructed at 4160m and was called Priut 11 (the refuge of the 11) after the name given to their tent by a group of 11 scientists who had earlier used this site as their base. The name stuck, and in 1932 a forty-man "Priut 11" was constructed at the same site. In the following year, a small hut was constructed at "The Saddle" between the two summits at an altitude of 5350m. The huts were soon overwhelmed with climbers as the next few years were to be the golden era of Soviet-style Mountaineering for the masses. In 1936, a huge group of young and inexperienced Komsomol members tried to ascend Elbrus in winter. In winter, there were large areas of exposed ice. Descending in good weather conditions, one member of the group slipped and knocked over other members of the party. Several "climbers" died sliding down the icy slopes and smashing into Pastukhova rocks.

As Mountaineering and sport became increasingly politicized in Sovjet society, Mountaineering camps grew in the Elbrus area. Although foreign teams continued to visit the Caucasus over decades, entering the USSR required and expedition mentality and a willingness to suffer endless red tape with a smile. The majority of the climber focused on the Alps, the Andes, and Alaska that had much fewer restrictions.

1959 - 1976, A cable car system - The Elbrus cableway was planned and built section by section. The final section from Station Mir to Priut 11 was never completed, although a chairlift which works intermittently takes visitors as far as Garabashi at 3800m from where snow-cats may be available to take them higher. The cable car has opened up the lower southern slopes of the mountain to skiers, who often ski above Garabashi late into the summer. The cable car system had also opened up the mountain to large numbers of "Mountaineers", many of whom were poorly equipped, inexperienced, and often physically ill-prepared. A lot of accidents happened at that time.

The opening up of Russia in the 1980s changed everything and paved the way for an open and unrestricted Elbrus to take its rightful place in world Mountaineering. On the 16th of August 1998, a group of climbers were cooking up a meal in "Priut Odinatsaty", Priut 11. Although it housed 120 visitors, the hut only had a tiny cramped kitchen with one gas cooker with four rings. As a result, the climbers were using their own stove, this went out of control and in the ensuing panic, someone grabbed a nearby container of what was thought to be water and poured it onto the stove. The liquid in the container was not water but fuel. In the resulting fire, several people suffered slight injuries but one person, abseiling from an upper window, after breaking the glass, fell and was seriously injured. Thus the Priut's fifty nine years of service came to an end. All that remained was a skeleton of the main metal structure. Now the burnt shell of Priut 11 stands surrounded by piles of rubbish, below it is the "bombed out" shell of the fuel store. You can still find it easily by following the tottering line of electric cable posts. You can also still visit the toilet which has survived. Few at the Priut ever visited it.

2001 - In the summer of 2001, the first basic stage of constructing a new hut just below the ruins of the Priut was completed. The name given to the hut is the "Diesel Hut", and it lies beside the famous toilet where the fuel hut was once located.


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