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Central Altai, Mt. Belukha region

Central Altai, Mt. Belukha regionThe Altais are a large mountain range situated in the southern part of Siberia, at the border between Russia and Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. This is an exceptionally beautiful region and, what is more important, a truly unspoiled one. Here the trees in the large forests fall on the underbrush only when they die a natural death; they are then gradually covered with thick moss, often becoming an inextricable tangle. At a higher altitude the Siberian birch trees, from 50 to 70 cm high, extend like a carpet over the earth. The grasslands are never scythed or used for grazing, and in spring there is an explosion of blooming flowers, some of which are species that have by now become rare in the Alps. The region abounds in squirrels, marmots and small rodents; lynxes, snow leopards, bears and golden eagles lead undisturbed lives here. In the Altais you walk through virgin land, on paths that often turn into brooks after snow-falls, wade across torrents, and skirt dazzlingly beautiful lakes and tall waterfalls.

The Altai region has a small population and tourism has just begun to develop. Thus, even reaching the base camp can turn out to be an adventure. You can get there from Moscow by plane with regularly scheduled flights that go as far as Barnaul, from where you can reach the towns of Gorno-Altaysk, Ust-Koksa or Kosh-Agach by using the small local airlines or by bus via the city of Biysk. From Kazakhstan, on tiae other hand, you go by air to the city of Ust-Kamengorsk. Then you can go to the base camp by helicopter, or on foot, which will take you from three days to a week.

The heart of this region consists of the Katunskiy and Chuyskiy ranges, which are named after the Katun and Chuya rivers. Here, for fifteen kilometres the mountain crests never fall below 4,000 meters; the largest of the more than 730 glaciers in the mountain system lies in this area (Mensu, which is eleven kilometres long), and the tallest peak in the Altais, Belukha (4,506m), towers majestically over the surroundings; lastly, here lies the source of the two rivers - the Biya and the Katun - that are the headstreams of the great Siberian river, the Ob, which is also one of the longest in the world.

The most interesting area for mountaineering is the one where Mt. Belukha is situated. This mountain has two peaks - the eastern (4,406 m) and the western (4,400 m). On the northern side of Mt. Belukha there is a sheer drop, with a 1,000 meter rock face, down to the Akkems-kiy amphitheatre, where a 5A-rated route lies, whereas on the southern side the mountain descends gently in slopes covered by the Katunskiy glacier. You can therefore set up your base camp near Lake Akkemskoe, not far from a meteorological station, or go to Lake Ezevoe on the southern side of the range.

The Route up Mt. Belukha (4,506 m, 2B)

From the camp on Lake Ezevoe, go up the Belaya-Berel river valley for about twenty kilometres through the forest with an off-road vehicle. Then, on foot, go over the small pass that leads to the Katun river valley until you reach the Katunskiy glacier (6 hours). Set up your bivouac on the moraine. Both in its profile and type of ascent via the normal route, Mt, Belukha is similar to Mt. Elbrus. Just as in the great Caucasus mountain, you go up to the col between the two top peaks, but the slopes here are steeper and have more crevasses, especially in the latter part of summer. You will need rope, ice screws, crampons and an ice axe.

The climb starts off from the Katunskiy glacier. Go up the right-hand part of the moraine on foot; continue up the slopes of the glacier until you reach the rock ridge that separates the two parts of the Katunskiy glacier, Then cross over to the right, moving eastwards, around the rock ridge. This is the most difficult part of the route; you cannot go directly upwards because of the icefall. In any case, even during the crossing you must go over a small icefall, where rope, ice axes and perhaps a fixed rope will come in handy, especially in mid and late summer. Continue along the rock ridge until you reach the snow slope. Proceed in the direction of the col between the rock ridge and the rock triangle under the snow dome of the eastern peak. Go up the middle of the snow slope in the upper stretch of the route. Once you are on the snow plateau, cross it by moving towards the col between the two peaks (4,000-4,100 m; 6-8 hours, depending on the condition of the snow). You can bivouac on the col.

In order to climb up the eastern peak of Mt. Belukha (4,406 m), go eastwards from the middle of the snowy plateau (and not from the upper part of the col). On the whole, the difficulty rating is 2B. In order to go up the western peak (4,400 m), go to the upper part of the col and head towards the peak via the snow slope and the small rock ridge (1 1/2-2 hours from the col). In May there might be ice on the upper part of the col, so it is advisable to take crampons along with you up to the peak. The difficulty rating is 3A.

The Eastern Ridge of Bronia Peak (3,206 m, 1B)

From the camp west of the Akkemskiy glacier it is an easy climb up to the top of Bronia Peak, which has an exceptional view of the entire Akkcm mountain barrier and the two peaks of Mt. Belukha. Go westwards, first on the grassy slopes (1-1 1/2 hours) and then on the moraine until you reach the eastern ridge of Bronia Peak, which can be seen quite clearly from the bivouac. Continue along the ridge up to the top on a mixed terrain of snowy slopes and over easy couloirs (4-5 hours). Use the same route to go back; it will take two or three hours and you will need rope.

Kara-Oluk Peak (3,950 m, 3A)

The starting point is the bivouac west of the Akkemskiy glacier. Cross the glacier eastwards (rope and ice axes are needed) and continue until you arrive at the northern ice and snow ridge of Kara-Oiuk, where the route winds its way up to the top. You will need rope, ice axes and ice pitons. In spring, when there is still lots of snow, there is the risk of avalanches. The climb can be made easily in one day. From the peak you can make the crossing by descending along the southeastern ridge (2A) that leads to the upper part of the Mensu glacier, The Shavlo Lakes Region This area is situated southeast of the Belukha region. It can be reached by helicopter, or on foot in three days via the Chuyskiy road, which winds alongside the Chuya river. The countryside is splendid: the birch woods and, higher up, the larches, cover the sides of the mountains up to an altitude of 2,000 meters, where they give way to a thick carpet of bushes that go up as far as the moraines. There is some local tourism in the Shavlo Lakes region, but there are no organised camps, so you will have to sleep in tents, cook over a wood fire and get your water from the rivers and lakes, which also offer plenty of fish. The valley is closed off to the south by a system of marvellous mountains with evocative names - Krasavitsa (Beauty; 3,870 m), Mechta (Dream; 3,60 m) and Skazka (Fable; 3,770 m) - that have interesting snow and mixed climbs.

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