Mountaineering tour in Azerbaijan Caucasus
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Even if you're not a real mountaineer Caucasus offers some fabulous climbs. You'll need an experienced guide (reckon on approx $50/day), one or two porters/camp guards ($30/day), horse for for load ($30/day) and good weather as there is no shelter on the flinty upper slopes.
Climbing Shahdag ('King's mountain', 4243m) takes you along a relatively narrow ledge and up a glacier for which crampons and an ice axe are normally necessary. The final stretch is somewhat anticlimactic except for the little Lenin statues at the summit, but the views from base camp are stunning. Coming via Laza you'll typically need four days from Baku. Driving via Xinaliq it is just about possible in 48 hours given perfect weather, but 3-4 days is normal. The same goes for Tufan Dag ('hurricane mountain', 4191m), climbed from the north, starting nearby. Tufan Dag's elegant triangular peak is unusual in having a small lake way up above the tree line at 3800m. Three sub-peaks to the west at about the same altitude there is a grave and some animal bones which may mark the site of the now vanished Hun village of Askikand.
Bazarduzu ('marketplace', 4466m) is the highest Caucasian peak east of Kazbek and has the added curiosity of being partly in Russian Dagestan (no checks). The climb involves scaling a scree-sprinkled glacier. Visible in the valley below are some aged graves of bygone traders whose summer markets gave the mountain its name. Roughly halfway to 3527m Riistamboz, is a curious point from which two streams flow in different directions, one south to Qamarvan near Qabala, the other north, eventually to form the Qusarchay river.
Our team can organise the climbing to Shahdag, Bazarduzu, Tufan as well as Bazar Yurt (4110), Qyzylqaya(Heydar Zirvasy - 3758 m. that was firstly pioneered in 1998 on the 75-th anniversary of Azerbaijan president Heydar ALiyev) and Ataturk Zirvasy (3786) named after the president of Turkey.
Shahdagh is not the tallest peak in the Caucasus - that would be Elbrus in the Russia Federation at 5,642m (18,619 feet). Nor is it the highest point in the vicinity of Azerbaijan - that would be Bazarduzu at 4,466m (14,738 feet), located on the border with Dagestan. But Shahdagh qualifies as the highest mountain point completely within the borders of Azerbaijan, and indeed, it's a pretty decent challenge for the novice climber. Its summit peaks at 4,243m (14,002 feet).
My friends and I accepted the Shahdagh challenge last June . Under the guidance of experienced Azerbaijani mountain guide Elchin Mammadov and our enthusiastic leader, Dave Askeland, who had attempted Shahdagh once before, 13 of us set off from Baku on a warm summer's morning for the four-hour drive to Laza.
I should mention that there are at least two locations known as Laza in Azerbaijan. This Laza can be reached via the northern highway through Guba, to the west of Gusar. The drive beyond Gusar was rewarding in itself, as we passed vast, lush green meadows running to the edge of sheer drop-offs and spectacular waterfalls along the way. The famous "Gates of Laza" are formed by a crack in a rock wall, through which the road passes and frames a breathtaking vista of sheer cliffs and waterfalls cascading along the far side of the valley.
Just beyond Laza, the road ends. It's there that an enterprising family has built a lodge at the foot of a waterfall. At the time we went, the accommodations were still under construction, but they intended to open them for business by the fall of 2000. In our situation, they willingly kept watch over our vehicles for the few days that we would be hiking, but I can imagine that this lodge could provide a restful night's sleep prior to a climb or even for just a weekend trip to Laza itself.
Soon after arriving there, we sorted out our gear one more time, slung on our packs (averaging 40 pounds apiece), and started up the trail. The narrow path hugged the left side of the valley as we headed upward. We figured walking for just half a day would be a good way to break in our climbing legs - not to mention our backs!
We camped that night on a grassy hillside at the very foot of Gizilguy, which translates as Golden Peak, although we had no clue of what a spectacular view it really would offer, as low gray clouds had hung over us for most of that day.
But that evening we "got our socks knocked off" as we discovered the real meaning of the peak's name when we took a stroll along one of the ridges and watched the clouds part just before the final moments of daylight. The setting sun lit up the mountain peak like a golden flame. We took it as a promise of great things to come.
Shahdagh in View
The morning brought blue skies that delighted us for the rest of the trip. I'll never forget the breathtaking views of treeless, emerald grassy slopes interrupted only by bare limestone rocky peaks against the deep blue, high-altitude sky. What an unexpected impressive delight!
By mid-morning of the second day, we were finally staring at our destination, the sheer south face of Shahdagh itself. It looked so formidable. It was hard to imagine an easy route to the summit. All we could do was trust our guide to get us to the top.
Elchin rigged up a rope to convey both packs and climbers across the boulders and the muddy river below. Somehow he succeeded in making the river crossing seem simple. Beyond, we paused to take in the expansive green meadow at the foot of the vertical mountain face, where sheep were grazing on fresh June grass. A small brook of clear spring water trickled nearby. This meadow in itself would have made a fantastic endpoint for any backpacker interested in a serene destination that was just one day's hike from the trailhead. There was plenty of grass to share with the sheep!
The ascent beyond was a grueling climb as we lugged our full packs up to the first point above 3,000 meters. Our steps became shorter; our breaths, deeper; and our breaks, longer. The air, now much thinner, made us mount more slowly. Camp that night was a grassy perch nestled beside snow-covered rocky cliffs and the drone of a waterfall. Looking back on the elevation that we had gained that day and the towering peaks to the south, we gained a great sense of satisfaction for all our efforts.
Celebrations come in many shapes and in many places. That day we commemorated my son's "coming of age" - his 13th birthday - with a backdrop of one of the grandest views I have ever enjoyed. Nor had we forgotten to bring refreshments to mark the event - instant cheesecake - from a box, of course! That night, we slept soundly at Birthday Base Camp, readying ourselves for the all-day climb the next day to the summit - our ultimate destination.
Some trails are obvious. You simply follow a well-worn path. Others are so daunting that it's best to fix your eyes on the person directly in front of you who, in turn, doggedly follows the guide. The trail beyond our base camp definitely fell into the latter category. At first glance, it seemed there would be no other way up the cliff face other than a technical, rope-assisted climb to the top. But Elchin once again demonstrated his ingenuity and knowledge of the area by leading us between boulders and rock walls along a narrow path around a precipice and up to the stark plateau above.
From there, the summit of Shahdagh was visible and would only require a short amble along a gradual incline, followed by a brief scramble up a narrow snow chute further on. But distances, like our breath, seemed short at this altitude. It turned out that we still faced several hours of physical and mental challenges. Fortunately, the weather was kind to us. Our trek continued under warm, windless conditions, the clear skies giving us views of snowy peaks in the far distance to the south and into the Dagestani Caucasus range to the north.
Crampons (climbing irons) and ice axes were helpful when we reached the steep, snow-covered route prior to a final, gradual grade to the summit. At this point we met our greatest challenge. Steps had to be kicked and hacked out in the snow one by one to ascend the steep glacier on its north face. Those of us hikers tailing the end of the line certainly had the advantage of the leaders' efforts, but even so, each step was an arduous chore. But falling behind was its own mental torture to the point of quitting. In fact, we almost did, twice, but the thought of watching others reach the summit and listening to their stories of triumph later on drove my son upward, determined to conquer the summit despite the grueling, step-by-step effort. Admittedly, it was an invaluable lesson in perseverance.
Gradually, the severity of the incline decreased and we found ourselves just 200 meters from the nondescript, rounded summit. Our spirits rose as Elchin announced that we had made it and pointed to a small pile of stones and the summit marker just ahead. I'm sure we would have lurched into a run to the spot if the lack of oxygen had not held us back. A metal pole crowned by a single star marks the summit. Numerous keepsakes marked the spot, including two white and black busts of Lenin, obviously left by hikers of earlier eras, metal signs with greetings in Russian and an empty champagne bottle. We planted the flags of Azerbaijan, the United States and a prominent U.S. oil company!
From the top of Shahdagh, you really can't discern that it's not the highest peak in the Caucasus. From that point, we were able to see the Caspian Sea far beyond the mountain ranges. The view brought pause as I reflected back on my hectic, harried life in Baku. My thoughts turned to the war that was going on just beyond the horizon to the north over in Chechnya. It was so hard to imagine war so close when nature seemed so peaceful and tranquil from our vantage point. What a contrast!
Sitting there on the Mountain King, my view had changed. My perception of Azerbaijan suddenly rose above the dry, brown, sea-level life on the Absheron Peninsula to which I had become so accustomed. Here was fresh air. Here was verdant green and the deep, azure blue sky unique to high altitudes. Here was nature at its finestright here in Azerbaijan! As in so many summit experiences, there was more to it than simply reaching the top.
Returning to Camp
The fair weather continued. And we basked in the sun, drinking in the view. Soon it would be time to make our way back to base camp. It was amazing how easy the return trip seemed. Slopes that had been so imposing on the way up were transformed into snow slides with the help of our crampons and ice axes on the way down. That evening was spent recalling the challenges and lessons learned.
Morning's sore muscles and blistered feet reminded us of the miles traveled. Nonetheless, we were able to pack up and hike the entire distance back out to our vehicles by 3 p.m. the same day. The shepherds we had met earlier in the trip waved to us as if we were old friends. Even the sheepdogs seemed less threatening on our descent. Perhaps a visit to the top, where one can see most clearly, is something we all need from time to time.
Dave Puls is a geologist who has worked in Baku since August 1998. Besides studying rocks, he enjoys touring the countryside of Azerbaijan and meeting the people who live there. Others who joined this trip were Nathan Puls, Dave and Bonnie Askeland, Mike Dublin, Tina Ohmann, John and Jay Adams, Calvin Tiessen, Jay Randall, Tammie Lenert, Todd Huegenin and, of course, their guide, Elchin Mammadov.
From Azerbaijan International (9.2) Summer 2001.
Departing Baku early in the morning and taking the main highway north, along the Caspian Sea. Pass through Guba, continue on to Gusar and take the east road up the north side of the river valley into the mountains. Along the way to Laza, one will pass through Chilagar and Jagar, cross a bridge and continue on to Zindanmurug and the fabulous Gates of Laza before descending the hillside into the village of Laza itself. Reaching trailhead, by moon a short drive beyond Laza at the foot of a beautiful waterfall and small creek. First camp, four-hour hike up the trail.
Breaking camp and starting hike by 9 a.m. Continue on the left side of the main drainage until the river crossing, which is done usually at a bend in the river adjacent to a huge grassy meadow at the foot of the south face of Shahdagh. Crossing the river with the aid of a rope and some rappelling over boulders. The trail beyond the meadow follows a double stream drainage just to the east of Shahdagh.
Base camp to summit and return. Leaving camp at 6 a.m., summit at 1 p.m., and return to camp by 5 p.m. Slow pace according to professional guide; most do this trip in eight hours. Frequent clouds can make finding the return trail difficult. A GPS device (global positioning system) could come in handy. Bring sunscreen, extra clothing and lots of water.
Base camp to trailhead. Leaving camp at 8 a.m. Arriving at trailhead by 3 p.m.
Duration - 6 days
best season - summer; winter climbings are for relatively experienced mountaineers
complexity - moderate, "1b" according to former Soviet standards
Day 1. Leaving Baku for Laza village, transfer to Qarabulaq spring, overnight stop (tents)
Day 2. Crossing to Shahiaylag(2000 m), overnight rest at the foothills of Shahdag
Day 3. Acclimatisation(getting ready for the ascent, this extra day is just in case of
bad weather, lagging behind the schedule, etc.)
Day 4. Ascent. Start at 7:00. Overnight stop.
Day 5. Descent to Qarabulaq. Overnight stop.
Day 6. Return to Baku
Overnight stops are in tents. Two nights might be arranged in Laza village.
Bazarduzi (4466) / Bazaryurt (4110) -
Tufan (4170) - 7 days
Heydar Zirvasi/ Ata-Turk(3786) - 5 days
ROUTES TO CLIMB SHAHDAG
Map of Shahdag located here (around 1 Mb., slow connection)
If you want to climb any of the highest mountains, a guide is pretty much essential. We have tight contacts with Mountaineering Association (Alpinistskiy Klub)and experienced climbers. Three of the big four Azen mountains (Tufan, Bazarduzu, Shahdag) are approached by walking up the valley from Laza (Qusar Laza) or by driving the extremely rough river-bed route by 4WD via Xinaliq to the very foot of Shahdag.
The fourth great mountain of Azerbaijan is 3629m Babadag. Somewhat away from the group described above, it can be approached from the north by following the Qarachay river south from Ruk or from the south via Sumagalle/Istisu (tough) or Lahic/Zarat Baba following a rough pilgrims' trail. On the top, prayer ribbons and cairns mark Hazrat Baba pir, honouring a mysterious Albanian-era holy man who climbed the mountain and then disappeared, advancing directly to heaven.
Since every ascent has to be thoroughly planned depending on the time of the year, number of people, route, physical training of every participant we do ask to give us a couple of days for planning your personal route and giving quotations. Just contact us and let us know about your preferences and requirements.