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Mount Elbrus and the Caucasus

Geology and relief

The Caucasus main ridge is a magnificent Alpine-type mountain chain with rocky peaks and glaciated slopes. The ridge rises almost 1000m above the permanent snow line. Most passes lie at 2400-3000m above sea level and are crossed only by mountaineering routes.

The Main Ridge is made of hard crystalline rocks - shales, gneisses and granites. Heavy glaciation has resulted in characteristic glacial sculpture, including glacial cirques and elegant pyramidal summits. From the cirques glacial tongues extend a long way down into many of the major valleys. Elbrus itself is a huge volcanic cone that lies several km. off the main ridge.

Glaciology and Hydrology

Areas above 3000m are heavily glaciated. The volcanic cone of Elbrus itself is covered by an ice cap of about 140 sq.km. 77 minor glaciers radiate from the Elbrus ice cap and some of them reach 400m in thickness. Among the most significant glaciers flowing from Elbrus are: Bolshoi (Greater) Azau (area 23 sq.km, 9.28 km long), Malyi (Small) Azau (8.49 sq.km, 7.58 km long), Garabashi (5 sq.km, 4.09km long), Terskol (7.56 sq.km, 7.02 km long), Irik (10.19 sq.km, 9.31 km long), Irikchat (1.79 sq.km, 2.67 km long). All the glaciers are in recession; during the last 100 years most have retreated between 80 and 500m. Glacier snouts reach down well below the snowline and give rise to numerous outfalls and rivers. Lakes are mostly of glacial origin, small in area but often deep.

There are many mineral springs, mainly in the upper Baksan, Irik, Adylsu and Malka valleys. Not far from Tegenekli village on the right bank of Baksan river, lies a glade of about 3 sq.km, surrounded by pine and birch wood, called Narzan Glade after its very high quality mineral springs. These are the most accessible of mineral springs in the area.

Climate

The main climatic peculiarities of the region are related to altitude and the dominant westerly airstream. Adjacent ridges and mountains moderate the influence of northerly and westerly winds on the climate of the valleys in the Elbrus Region; thus spring and summer weather here is mainly dry, warm and clear (the average monthly valley temperature in July is about 20°C); winter and autumn are cold, dry and clear (the average temperature in January is -4°C). Warm, dry winds blowing from the mountains down into the valleys in winter may cause thaws lasting several days which are often followed by huge snowfalls. Annual precipitation is 550-650mm; in certain years it may rise up to 950mm. Above 2000m annual precipitation is to 1500mm and more. Thunderstorms are quite common in early summer.

The Transcaucasus (south of the main ridge) are much more exposed to humid westerlies and annual precipitation is higher (950-1050mm); the average temperature in July is about 17°C.

Below 2000m winter lasts from December to February, above 2000m from October to April. Snowfall is frequent and often heavy, and high in the mountains snowstorms are common. By the end of the winter season snow-cover reaches 30-60cm in exposed areas and 3m in areas protected from the wind. Avalanches may take place in winter or early spring during thaws.

Vegetation

North of the main ridge valleys and lower mountain slopes (1900 - 2300m) are covered with pine forests mingled with birch and mountain ash. Vegetation here clearly indicates lines of old avalanches - these are marked by deciduous forests of birch, mountain ash, aspen and others. Between 2300 and 3000m the forests have been replaced by alpine meadows rich in flowers. Closer to the edges of glaciers and snowfields snowdrops bloom and colourful lichens cover stones free from snow.

In the Transcaucasus, south of the main ridge, up to 1600m, one may find beech, hornbeam, maple, linden and ash forests.

Higher still, up to 2100m, fir tree forests are found and above these alpine meadows with a wide variety of flowers often not found on the northern side of the ridge.

Fauna

The Caucasus has a rich fauna; the forests are home to the Caucasian brown bear, wolf, lynx, wild boar, Caucasian deer, marten, forest cat, pole cat, mole, squirrel, and mouse. High in the mountains Caucasian goat and chamois are often encountered.

Many forest birds live in Elbrus Region. Among birds of prey there are eagle and kite, and Caucasian heath-cock hide in rhododendron bushes. On lower slopes the colourful Caucasian pheasant may be found, and higher in the mountains - ular (mountain turkey), keklik (stone partridge), rock pigeon, alpine daw and others.

Rivers are rich in trout and other fish.


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© Andrew Wielochowski 4/9/2014. From the "Map & guide to Elbrus and the Upper Baksan"