Friday, August 31, 2012

SVANETI: The Caucasus: Georgia on the Crossroads. Cultural Exchanges Across Europe and Beyond. By Silvio Calvi (

( The discovery of the Caucasus mountains as playground for mountaineers came immediately after the great climbs in the Alps.

After climbing the Matterhorn, with a first ascent that was also a tragedy, British climbers turned their eyes into a new area: the Caucasus.

The pioneer was Douglas Freshfield, who spent 13 summers in the Alps and the decided to change his horizons.

In 1868 he spent his summer in Caucasus and went back to London after climbing the two highest extinct vulcanoes in the area, Kasbek and Elbrus.

Easy climbs, from a mountaineering point of view, but what he described was enough to lead his countrymen to a new type of race, whose goal was simply to be the first in the ascent of unclimbed and untrodden peaks. Information was not easy available and the maps and sketches on which mountaineers prepared their expeditions were quite simple. The expedition in itself was a discovery: from one valley to the other even the language was different, as everyone knows also today.

But they succeeded, crossing the Caucasus from East to West.

The appearance of Freshfield’s first book Travels in the Central Caucasus and Bashan; including Visits to Ararat and Tabreez and Ascents of Kazbek and Elbruz was a turning point and the following decades were the years of discovery, much as the events in the Alps after the first climb of Mont Blanc.

Mountaineers returned with beautiful pictures and maps were prepared to show the details of the area.

Among the photographers, outstanding were the images of Mr. de Dechy and, most of all, Vittorio Sella, who travelled by himself and with Freshfield, with a keen eye not only for nountains, but also for landscape and people. His images of Svaneti are an outstanding example of how you can travel trough a country documenting the existing life.

The tragedy that took place in 1888, with four British climbers disappearing north of Shkara slowed the race for discovery: as always death of climbers brings to a serious thought about the essence of climbing and risk.

After the British, the Germans: they completed the discovery of Caucasus and they even installed, for an easier exploration, the “German Bivouac” on the North side of Ushba, staying there for weeks and climbing the surrounding summits.

We should not forget that climbs were performed thanks to the help of Swiss or Italian mountain guides, used to altitudes and professional of the summits.

The locals stepped in later: the most famous was Mikhail Khergiani, son of a Georgian national hero who climbed Elbrus only to take off the signs of the German ascent during the occupation of Russia during World War II. Misha, as he was called, climbed not only in Caucasus, where he opened new routes on the family mountains, but also in Britain, Mont Blanc and on the Dolomites, where he was accustomed to go to defy the most difficult routes. On one of these, the Livanos in the Su Alto of the Civetta ranged, he died of a sad accident in 1968 and local mountaineers still remember his person.

At those times it was not easy to travel to and from Russia and the Caucasus mountains disappeared from the sight, obscured also by the race to the 8.000 himalayan peaks.

Nonetheless Russian mountaineers kept the flame up and continued climbing, staying in touch with the outside world in spite of lack of resources and initiatives, climbing also in Himalaya thanks mostly to personal initiatives after 1989 and the disappearance of the USSR.

Today Georgian climbers and organizations are working toward the rediscovery of the Caucasus, putting up all efforts to make the area visited by foreigners as well as locals.

One area in undisputably the jewel of Caucasus: the Svaneti area.

An isolated valley, difficult to reach because of bad roads and time-requiring transfers from the capital, Tbilisi, populated by Svans, proud of their customs, language and heritage.

It includes villages which are a UNESCO heritage for the architectural and environment landscape.

What is necessary for the development of a local mountaineering culture? First of all it is necessary to preserve the environment and the local economy, through the development of sustainable practices.

Then the mountains must be brought to the attention of the outside world: Mount Ushba is known as the “terrible”, as the Matterhorn of Caucasus. It requires great ability to climb it and only the best can do it.

Aside from the prospective off climbing, as it happened in the Alps, a network of huts and trails has to be established.

This is happening already, thanks to the initiative of the local Svaneti Tourism Center and the Georgian Union of Mountaineering Associations, which has marked the best trails in the area, and to the help of other mountaineering clubs like the Italian Alpine Club. A map including all of the trails is under preparation and with the distribution of the map, articles in mountaineering magazines, information on media, the attendance of climbers and trekkers can be expected.

A network of huts can be established allowing people to stay comfortably up in the mountains to enjoy the views and, why not, go on summits by the easy routes.

Let alone the fact that the difficult ones are still there to be explored.

Projects are going one to prepare a guidebook of Georgian mountains like the ones we are used to in Europe.

Obviously it is necessary to overcome the difficulties due to the political situation and the relations with Russia: travels like those made by Freshfield and company seem impossible today.

But as mountaineers know well, mountains do not belong to politicians and there will be certainly a time in the future when the travel routes of Freshfield or Sella will be repeated again, zigzagging through borders in peace.

Promoted by:
Romualdo Del Bianco Foundation
Palazzo Coppini Via del Giglio, 10
50123 – Florence (Italy)

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