The Soviets have climbed extensively in Caucasus before the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Many routes date back to that time and there is very little information about the new ones.
The most recent guidebook was published in 1991 and it’s a selective book called Classic Climbs in the Caucasus by Friedrich Bender. The most recent definite guide is Alexander Naumov’s Gory Svanetii. It was printed in 1985 and it has been out of print for decades. I found it on the internet and made a small reprint in English. Please ask further details, if you wish to have one.
From what I’ve seen and read I’ve understood the area is huge and it’s in nearly virgin conditions. Compared to the Himalayas the the Caucasus has a relatively low altitude which is a big advantage since you don’t have to spend time trekking and acclimatizing before the climbs.
During our two weeks in Mestia we reasoned the Caucasus is quite much like the Alps but the mountains are slightly higher and there are no huts or ski lifts.
The most sought after mountain in the Caucausus is the Ushba. It has twin summits and it’s located on the Russian border zone but both summits are on the Georgian side. Both summits have very few ascents each year. They say it’s the Matterhorn of Caucasus but that’s an understatement.
In technical terms it may be roughly the same but the approach, the exposure and the weather conditions add up significantly. And there are neither fixed ropes nor huts. The overall exposure is quite much like doing the Innominata Ridge on the south side of Mont Blanc.
Can it be approached from Russia?
The regular North ridge route (Russian 4a or AD+) for the easier North peak (4690m) was previously approached from Russia via the notoriously dangerous Ushba icefall. It has changed with the recent border conflicts, though. According to the Georgian climbers we met the Russian side is currently more or less a closed military zone and you can’t cross the border. Thus, the easiest way up is via the village of Becho in Svanetia, Georgia.
The easiest route to the higher South peak (4710m) is graded Russian 5B or TD. This and all the other routes will approached from Becho, too.
Where should I stay?
The village of Becho is situated near the city of Mestia in Svanetia. If you’re wondering which is the best place to stay I’d say the few extra minutes between the neighboring villages Mazeri and Guli won’t make any difference here or there. They are all more or less the same village with 15 minutes of walking distance in between. Climbing wise the real decision has to be made in between Mestia and Becho.
In Becho you can stay at Shalva Kvitsiani’s place called Ushba Homestay. It’s where the climbers used to stay traditionally and he know’s a lot about climbing although he’s no climber himself. The only problem is he doesn’t speak much English. He will serve you local fresh food directly from his farm so the stay there is all-inclusive. If you speak any Russian I think a very good option.
In Mazeri there’s also a nice hotel called Grand Hotel Ushba. This is run by a Norwegian guy Richard and he speaks fluent English but he’s no climber. If you wish to stay in Grand Hotel you should book the accommodation in advance. It seems to be sold out every now and then.
In Mestia there are plenty of hostels so you can more or less drop by and find something. Most backpackers stay only one night and for the next night and there’s always plenty of room.
Both options have sparse bad weather activities. Sport climbing doesn’t exist but both have good hiking possibilities. In Mestia there are more bars and cafes and most hostels also have a WiFi there.
How do I get there?
The main international airport in Georgia is in Tbilisi (TBS) and the second big one is in Batumi (BUS) at the Black Sea. With a car it’s 4 hour drive from Batumi and 6 hour drive from Tbilisi so there’s no big difference.
For current travel options between the cities, please check wikitravel http://wikitravel.org/en/Mestia
The wikitravel doesn’t mention the inexpensive petrol so all combined a rent-a-car may be also considered. From what we saw the traffic was wild but doable if you’ve driven some in southern Italy. The traffic rules are more or less suggestive and speeding is common. The roads have room for improvement but they are ok if you’re accustomed to mountain roads and gravel roads. It’s good to know that landslides are not uncommon on the mountain regions.
Is there any more info available?
Below you’ll have the tourist map for the area. The map describes most important hiking routes and other activities for the area. The map is not exhaustive. Have fun discovering the rest!
The map is lots of pixels and 6,0 megabytes so right click + save as will work best: