Bezengi is a mountain range comprised of the highest Caucasian peaks in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, and is colloquially known as the “Lesser Himalayas” among professional climbers. Vladimir Ivshin recounts his journey to the former Bezengi Soviet mountaineering camp and the perils endured by his team along the climb.
Hiking treacherous mountain ranges was a popular holiday pastime during the Soviet era. There existed roughly 200 high-altitude camps across the country, sponsored and maintained by the authorities. With the collapse of the USSR, government support for the sport was terminated, and only a handful of these bases have survived to this day. The legendary Bezengi camp, located 2,200 meters above sea level, not only survived the institutional void of the 1990s, but even managed to flourish into an important modern mountaineering hub – largely due to its employees’ determination and the efforts of enthusiasts.
Before the collapse, the rigid Soviet sports qualification system disallowed amateurs from visiting the camp and hiking the surrounding mountains. Even professional climbers were sometimes barred from entry as the local treks were considerably dangerous. Now, you can encounter alpinists of all expert levels there: from amateurs to winners of the Piolet d’Or – the highest achievement for mountaineers in the world. Six Russian 5,000-meter peaks tower the region, and there are only four routes suitable for novices. For Russians, especially those raised before the 1990s, the campground atmosphere is strongly evocative of the nostalgic Soviet Young Pioneer summer camps – the regulars at Bezengi all know each other and wave off every bus arriving or leaving the settlement.
My friends and I have been visiting the camp for several years now, still awestruck by the huge, surrounding ice mounts with each and every visit. During our last trip we sought to complete four hikes in two weeks, but the best-laid plans go astray when you’re in the mountains. The Russian climbers abide by the rule that in an emergency all the teams in the vicinity have to come to the rescue. Upon our last arrival, we were swiftly roped into a rescue operation after a climber had fallen while scaling one of the peaks. To make matters worse, ice storms hit us during the mission, almost whisking away our tent with all the equipment. Only with the help of fellow mountaineers, were we able to recover our belongings and get on with our journey.
The Caucasian ice caps have been melting for several decades now, causing more rockfalls with each passing season. Certain local routes, which were still surmountable in the beginning of the 2000s, have now become unsafe. This summer, a woman died while attempting to conquer the Sella peak, and it so happened that we decided to go along the same route. As the likelihood to get struck by a falling rock increases a great deal in the sunlight, we would leave the camp late at night. By 10am we reached the safety of the mountain spine after fortunately dodging just a few rocks, and only to discover that our initial route was cut off by an avalanche. We crossed numerous glaciers and ice falls, wandering among the cracks in search for a place to spend the night. One of my friends fell while climbing the ice wall, and twisted his ankle – preventing him from joining us on the next hikes. But as the alpinist saying goes, “the mountains will stand and wait for you – provided you survive this ascent”.