Main image: A full moon in the High Caucasus. Credit: Constantine Vopilovsky.
It’s now several years since I trekked through the valleys and over the passes around Mount Elbrus. Looking back, this was probably all a bit foolhardy since we were twice robbed during the night and once found ourselves marooned on a high pass where snow suddenly swirled in the middle of August. But we also encountered friendly shepherds who served up fresh bread with dollops of thick yoghurt and came across isolated villages where we seemed to be the very first visitors from Western Europe. The Caucasus chain, running west to east from the Black Sea to the Caspian, formed a majestic snow-capped palisade and it was tempting to think that one day we might return to venture further afield.
Journalist Tom Parfitt has now done the hard work for us and his memoir of an epic and risky 1,000-mile walk, largely to the north of the main peaks, traverses bear-haunted forests, high altitude pastures and one of the great snowfields below Elbrus. It also passes through the political, religious and ethnic jigsaw of seven Russian republics, where people and places collide with layers of dark history.
Indeed, Parfitt had reported upon the dreadful scenes at the Beslan school siege and his journey was conceived as a means of helping to put those ghosts to rest, though suitable maps and paths were frequently few and far between. The walk became a source of both recuperation and discovery, accompanied by tales of strong collective memory – tens of thousands were forcibly deported from the Caucasus during the Second World War – and heroic individual survival.
Often, high in the mountains, the author had to rely on the unexpected but much appreciated generosity of strangers. He marvels at the dignity of the people he meets, many of whom have experienced anger and anguish, and describes deep hidden gorges with warm healing waters as well as dramatic hilltop settlements with haunting memorials. Along the way, landscapes change from the sub-tropical but disputed territory of Abkhazia to the dry and dusty plateau of Dagestan.
Travels in the Caucasus are obviously on hold at the moment but Parfitt makes the reader dream of adventures to come. I was just left wondering why the book, and its evocative photos, had needed a lengthy gestation of fifteen years.
High Caucasus: A mountain quest in Russia’s haunted hinterland by Tom Parfitt is published by Headline; £25.
When contributors to The Great Outdoors aren’t out walking, some like to relax with a good book. Read their outdoor book reviews now for your next bedtime story of adventure.