Hiking the Caucasus mountains
By Edie Gibson
Last summer I was in the backyard of Putin’s dacha. Actually, I was on top of Mt. Fisht of Adyghea, which looks down on Putin’s mountainside dacha and is practically in its backyard. But, to tell you truth, on top of Mt. Fisht Putin’s dacha is the last thing I wanted to look at.
In the Adygh language, Fisht means “White Head”. It is an appropriate name for the bald rock summit of one of Russia’s best known and most popular hiking destinations in the North Caucasus. Despite its height, this majestic 2867m (1792ft) peak does not require climbing experience.
Our trip started in Maikop, the capital of the Republic of Adyghea. From there we drove out of town towards the village of Tulsky. We had a private van but could have hired a taxi at the train station. The road runs along the picturesque gorge of the Belaya River. Past the waterfalls at Khadjok we turned left and crossed the river, heading towards Lago-Naki. This road took us from the serene forests of the lower slopes up through peaceful mountain meadows dotted by brightly painted bee houses and past breathtaking panoramas from higher and higher altitudes. Once we past the boundary of the national park, or reserve, it turned into a dirt road and eventually we could drive no further. As we tumbled out of our vans, we felt that the August humidity of Maikop had changed to crisp, cool mountain air.
From the entrance of the Reserve at Lago-Naki to the foot of Mt Fisht, the hike is about 17 km (10.5 mi.) of breathtaking beauty. Mt. Fisht stands at the western point of the Êàâêàçñêèé ãîñóäàðñòâåííûé áèîñôåðíûé çàïîâåäíèê (Caucasus State Biosphere Reserve) which was put on UNESCO’s list of biosphere reserves in 1979. The mountain can only be reached by foot or on horseback. At an easy pace, the return trip can be done in four days starting from the end of the Lago-naki road, at a place nicknamed “End of the Earth”. Beyond this point are treeless mountain slopes which look too vast and desolate to transverse. Yet, with our backpacks tightly strapped and our feet pounding the dirt path these slopes seemed to float past us, giving way to meadows and mountain passes crisscrossed by cold, refreshing mountain streams and saturated with the aroma of wildflowers.
From the top of the last mountain pass you can see all the glory of Mt Fisht, from the tip of its “White Head” to the peaceful bowl-shaped valley at its foot. In this valley you find a hiking shelter where you can spend the first night. This Fishtinsky priyut offers a place on one of its lumpy but comfortable sleeping platforms complete with unwashed pillows and random bedmates all for 80r a night. Bring your own sleeping bag. For 50r you may set up your tent next to a bubbling mountain river and be allowed to boil spring water in the common kettle and to use the tables in the kitchen tent. Sleeping inside the platform has the advantage of keeping you protected from the cold night air.
Plan to leave early in the morning if you want to reach the summit in one day. The morning’s clear blue sky often gives way in the afternoon to clouds that cover Mt. Fisht with mists, which can be dangerous. The hike to the summit is 3-6 hours. Although some climbing is required it can be done by children. Just below the white rock summit you must cross a glacier. In some parts the snow is steep and everywhere it is slippery, so be sure you take good shoes and perhaps a walking stick with a pointed end.
Once we had slipped, slid, and crawled over the snow a rocky ridge led us up to the bald rock summit. From where we stood all the North Caucasus lay at our feet. On one side the bowl-shaped valley rises to the green slopes and cliffs of the mountains of Adyghea. On the other side the mountains gradually step down to the Black Sea which can be seen on a clear day glistening in the distance. On this side also sits Putin’s dacha. You may climb 2867m to gawk at it if you wish, but I think you will find that view hardly worth a glance compared to the magnificence of God’s nature.