The Olympic Mountains of Sochi

On Friday, I spent the day with several other parents waiting in line to register our children for what we believe is the best preschool in the area. Registration was at 6:00 p.m. During a tour of the school, Natalie learned that the parents of prospective students showed up early in the morning to get in line to secure a space. I arrived at 5:00 a.m. believing that I would be at least second, or maybe third in line. Instead, there were already eight other eager parents already in line.

I got to know the eight other parents well, and they got to know me and that I ran TSM. The Winter Olympics, happening in Sochi, Russia, came up and I realized that people thought Sochi was in Northern Russia. I remember having to explain where Whistler was to several neighbors four years ago during the Vancouver Winter Games.

While my mental map of this region of Russia isn’t perfect, I was right when I said Sochi was near the homeland of one of my high school classmate, an exchange student of Georgia — that’s the in the Caucasus Mountains.

Sochi, Russia is a major ski resort in Russia located on the Black Sea, which is a popular vacation destination any time of year, according to my old friend.

North American’s probably don’t think of this area unless they hear a news story about Russia and Chechnya (which is further east anyway). However, it’s geographically significant if you’re interested in the highest peaks on each of the seven continents: While many believe that Europe’s highest point is Mont Blanc (15,781 ft./4,810 m. and the birthplace of mountaineering as we know it) in the Alps, it’s actually a mountain around the border between Europe and Asia. The Ural Mountains are accepted as the division between the adjoining continent, but where the Caucasus to the south lay in the equation is a matter for debate.

Let me settle this by simple national pride and self-identity: One day while I was in high school I said to my Georgian friend that he was technically Asian. I relied on the fact that most Europeans didn’t even want Turkey joining the EU. Georgia was to the east, so it made sense in a weird way. His reaction was passionate and I haven’t forgotten. With a fist pump in the air and a bright, proud smile he corrected me, “I am European.” Got it.

Why is this important? Well, the Caucasus Mountains are higher than the Alps. No question. And a mere 150 miles away from Sochi is Europe’s true highest peak, Mount Elbrus (18,510 ft./5,642 m.), which stands in the center of the range that runs northwest-southeast.

Last year’s American Alpine Journal included only one entry for the Caucasus. That’s most likely because they are well trampled. Still, there is some opportunity to making new paths. The climb described on page 261 of the 2013 AAJ was of a new route — performed in winter.

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