Priut 11 and the Caucasus

Priut 11 and the Caucasus
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Priut 11 - Mount Elbrus

The end of an era

On the 16th of August 1998, a group of climbers were cooking up a meal in "Priut Odinatsaty".  Priut eleven, a mountain hut sometimes called the highest "hotel" in the world, was located on the slopes of Mount Elbrus, the highest summit in Europe.  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. As luck would have it 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 stucture.

Elbrus from Cheget
Lying just north of the main Caucasus watershed the twin summitted, glaciated, 5640 meter high volcanic cone of Elbrus lies entirely in Europe, in the Russian Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria.  It's east summit was first climbed by the Kabardinian Killar Khashirov in 1829 who was at the time employed as a guide by a Russian army scientific expedition.  The west, and slightly higher summit, was only ascended in 1874 by a Balkarian guide, Akhia Sottaiev, who was working for a group of foreign climbers (three English climbers: Gardner, Grove and Walker, and a Swiss climber Knubel).

At the end of the 19th century the famous Russian army topographer Andrei Pastukhov made several attempts at reaching the summit.  His inability to readily acclimatise defeated his initial attempts. The rocks at 4960m, near where he was forced to camp on one of his attempts were named after him in memory of his contribution to the knowledge of the mountain.

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.  The inevitable happened eventually in 1936 when a huge group of young and inexperienced Komsomol members tried the ascent Elbrus in winter.  In winter the winds blow all the loose powdery snow off the higher slopes of the mountain leaving the large areas of exposed ice.  Descending in good weather conditions one of the group slipped and knocked over one after another member of the party like skittles.  Many "climbers" died that day sliding and rolling over the icy slopes to smash themselves on the rocks of Pastukhova.

Priut 11 before fire
Plans to build a futuristic hotel resulted in a grand, three-storied, metal-clad hut being finally completed in 1939 at the site of the previous Priut 11.  The design and construction of the hut was overseen by the architect and alpinist Nicolas Popov with the assistance of Ferdinand Kropf, an Austrian who settled in the Soviet Union and finally became the chief of the Soviet Rescue Services.  The hut could accommodate one hundred and twenty visitors, had electricity, was double glazed and totally weather proof.

During the Second World War the Germans, desperate for fuel, put all their efforts into pushing across the Volga river to the rich oilfields of the Caspian Sea.  By mid-August 1942 their forces had occupied all the territories north of the Baksan Valley and were gradually taking the mountain valleys in the Western Caucasus.  On the 14th August 1942, a unit of the German Alpine division "Edelweiss", under the command of Captain Grod, crossed the four thousand meter high Khotiutau Pass from the west and unexpectedly arrived at Priut 11.  The Germans suggested to the few occupants of the hut that resistance was useless and offered them a chance to move out unhindered, after a short consultation they took up the offer!   Soon the swastika was flying on the summit of Elbrus.  Confused tales now tell of a "heroic" bombing of the Priut by the Russians. The pilot was decorated for his achievement. It was suggested that he should be decorated again when it was discovered that he in fact had only hit the fuel store a short way from the hut which itself was undamaged. Others claim that no such bombing took place, that this was just a propaganda ploy.  The truth will probably be never known, however by the winter of 1942 the Germans were finally repulsed and routed from Stalingrad and the Volga.  Their forces withdrew from the Elbrus area on the 10th January 1943 and by mid-February the Soviet flag was re-established on the summit of Elbrus.

Those interested in finding out more about this period should visit the Museum located at the Mir Station of the Elbrus Cable Car.  But hurry!  The roof of the museum is leaking and the electricity supply has been disconnected.  It is unlikely the collection will survive very much longer - it will most likely join Priut 11 soon as another rotting relic of the past.

Route to Elbrus via Cable Cars
In the period 1959 to 1976 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 has also opened up the mountain to large numbers "mountaineers", many of whom are poorly equipped, inexperienced and often physically ill-prepared.

In recent years many tourists and commercial organisations would use a hotel in the Baksan Valley as a base for acclimatisation for two or three days before pressing on to the Priut 11 or the Garabashi "barrels". They then would stay there for several days making forays up the slopes of Elbrus in the hope that eventually they would be fit and acclimatised enough to make the summit push.  Many of these people failed and many accidents have occurred.

Since the demise of the Priut 11 the rubble and charred remains have been mainly cleared up and a new hut - the Diesel Hut - has been built on the same site. We hope it has a long and successful life as a homely base for the ascent of Elbrus in the coming years.

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© Andrew Wielochowski 2/9/2014