Georgian Alpinism in Svaneti: Re-centering the Peripheral Alpinist through the Lens of Risk
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
In 1923, a group of young and inexperienced Georgian alpinists, led by the mathematician Giorgi Nikoladze and local guide Iagor Kazalikashvili, made what would become known as the first Georgian summit on the 5000 meter high Kazbegi Peak in northern Georgia (also known as Mount Kazbek in Russian). By the late 1940s, the successful summit was memorialized as the beginning of Soviet alpinism, but at the time it served as the foundation for a community of Georgian alpinists focused on climbing peaks in the name of the nation, based largely in Tbilisi. Throughout the 1920s, Georgian climbers were some of the most active Soviet alpinists and by the end of the decade were beginning to attempt summits on more difficult and technically challenging peaks. All of this culminated in a fateful 1929 expedition to Svaneti – a mountainous region in northwestern Georgia – and a deadly attempt on the pyramid shaped Tetnuldi Peak.
The attempt involved three alpinists – Giorgi Nikoladze, Simon Japaridze, and Pimen Dvali. Of the three, Japaridze was the most obviously talented alpinist who, by the late 1920s, had emerged as the leader of Georgian climbing. But the alpinists were plagued by a lack of equipment and unusually hard ice that their crampons struggled to bite into. Only a short distance from the peak, tragedy struck the group when Dvali began to slip on the hard ice and Japaridze rushed to save him. It is worth citing Nikoladze’s account of the tragedy:
“In fear I yelled to Simon…. ‘Pimen, Pimen’! – exclaimed Simon and hastily stuck the sharp horn of the ice axe under the knee of Pimen, since Pimen already reclined on one leg, but the ice axe did not hold Pimen. Then poor Simon grabbed Pimen by the shoulders, but Pimen was not able to hold on to anything already, - his fate was already decided and together with him the fate of Simon.
The slip was so slow at first. Suddenly both, as if breaking away, rushed with great speed downwards. I only saw how the ice axes fell from both of their hands and fell in different directions. This all rushed with greater and greater speed to the right of me. Not one of us raised a single sound. We all three were numb. Pimen, Simon, the two ice axes, the banner – all slipped into the crater of the glacier, turned to the left and disappeared from my eyes. Immediately the noise ceased, all was silent and I remained alone in this terrible kingdom of ice and death.”
By the time of Japaridze and Dvali’s deaths in 1929 Soviet alpinism had embraced the wider currents of proletarian touring, which focused on the promotion of worker alpinists in urban centers. Despite these changes, the Georgian climbing community continued to support climbers in the mountainous regions of the republic, the rural “peasants” and hunters who had intimate knowledge of the mountainous regions where they lived. These differing orientations caused enormous tension between Georgian climbers and the Soviet center, but the development of alpinism in the mountainous periphery turned out to be a remarkably successful project. By the 1940s, Georgian climbers from Svaneti were some of the most decorated Soviet alpinists in a world largely dominated by the Russian middle-class (in the post-war period the most famous Svan climber was arguably Mikhail Khergiani, whose own tragic death was memorialized by the popular Soviet bard Vladimir Vysotskii).
The problem for my research was that it was not clear how climbers from Tbilisi and those from Svaneti formed such productive partnerships. The sustained development of local climbers in the region arguably only began in 1929, when Svan hunters aided in the search for Japaridze and Dvali’s bodies. By the mid-1930s it was clear that this tentative cooperation had transformed into a semi-official branch of the Georgian climbing community in Tbilisi. However, the archival record for the early 1930s was almost completely blank in both Tbilisi and Moscow, and the tourist periodicals produced during that period had little to say on these interactions. The breakthrough came from a short but critical work written by Simon Japaridze’s brother, Alexander Japaridze, which I came across in the National Parliamentary Library in Tbilisi. The book, simply titled Tetnuldi, detailed Alexander Japaridze’s attempts in 1930 to summit the mountain in honor of Simon. As I discovered later, the book itself had a curious history – it was only published in Tbilisi in 1948 after Alexander Japaridze’s own tragic death, and had multiple versions that were much longer than the actual published account. But even the truncated published version offered unique insights into the affective relationships that formed between climbers from Tbilisi and Svaneti and the ways that risk fostered friendships that transcended social class.
Alexander Japaridze’s writing detailed some of the ways that the deaths of the two climbers in the previous year resonated painfully with other Georgian climbers. Iagor Kazalikashvili, a hunter and guide from northern Georgia, was particularly distraught at the death of Simon Japaridze, a close friend and regular climbing companion, and wrote a folk poem in honor of Japaridze and Dvali that was later published by leading Georgian alpinists in Tbilisi. Svan hunters were motivated to climb in honor of the fallen alpinists, and were central participants in the 1930 expedition. The dangers of summiting the peak, and the obvious risks of failing to complete the summit safely, served as a foundational moment for alpinism in the region. In July 1930, Georgian climbers made the first Soviet ascents on the mountain.
In 1937, the newly formed Georgian Alpine Club in Tbilisi, in cooperation with climbers in Svaneti, organized a mass ascent on the Tetnuldi peak. The event was intended to popularize alpinism in the region and culminated in 182 Svans reaching the peak of the mountain. But without the context of the earlier 1930 expedition, the drive to create a climbing community in Svaneti and the focus on Tetnuldi made little sense. Svanetian peaks were central to the history of Soviet alpinism, but until the post-Stalin period Svan climbers themselves were largely absent from the official archives of the sport. Critically reading texts like Tetnuldi allows us to reconstruct the experience of these climbers, and the ways that their involvement, far from being peripheral, was central to the wider history of Soviet alpinism.
Ben Bamberger is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His dissertation, “Mountains of Discontent: Georgian Alpinism and the Limits of Soviet Equality, 1923-1955,” examines the development of an independent alpinist community in Georgia and its relationship with the Soviet center to better understand the complex nature of Soviet empire in the Caucasus.
 G. Nikoladze, “Poslednee voskhozhdenie Simona Dzhaparidze” in Na putiakh k vershinam: pamiati proletarskikh al’pinistov Pimena Dvali i Simona Dzhaparidze ed,, V. Semenovskii (Moscow and Leningrad, 1930), 51.
 Alexander Japaridze, Tetnuldi (Tbilisi, 1948).
 Alexander Japaridze, rcheuli nats’erebi (Selected Writings), ed. D. Dondua (Tbilisi 1949), 475-476.
 Iagor Kazalikashvili, leksebi, ed. Mikel Pataridze (Tbilisi, 1933), 17-18.
 Na sushi i na more (NSNM) no. 10 (1937): 32; NSNM no. 12 (1937): 24; k’avk’asionze, comp. D. Purtseladze, ed. by N. K’etskhoveli (Tbilisi,1959): 321.