Georgian adventure, part 3

by Fergal Hingerty. Previous diaries - part 1, part 2

Day 6

(Cold as ice)
You know that you are
(Cold as ice)
As cold as ice to me
(Cold as ice)

Cold As Ice by Foreigner Day

Well, after the excitement of the previous few day’s and mindful of the big challenge the next day, a stroll to the Chalaadi glacier is all I will do for the day. As per usual an early start in the early morning sunshine and a stroll from Mestia pass the small airport alongside the river.

Even though this is not the most inspiring of all walks, as you leave Mestia, the towering mountains and the lonely church on a hill are rather easy on the eye. Gradually, I left the outskirts of the city and the dirt track was eventually enclosed by the roaring river on one side and the towering massif of Banguriani mountain on the other.

After around 6 kilometres or so I came to a split in the valley whereby there was two small cafes and a rope bridge across the roaring river. With a few bits missing from the bridge, this was not the most boring of crossings. After gingerly crossing I came to the track through the forest and headed up towards the glacier. Now the flatness of the valley floor was replaced by a winding track that moved up and down around rocks, clefts and small gullies to emerge on a broad valley.

The valley was strewn with massive boulders that had emerged from the glacier, stretched out in front of me. The sharp steep slopes enclosed the valley from either side as I headed up, clambering over the rocks to the base of the glacier.

This was truly an amazing sight, standing around twenty metres from it. There was a hole at the base of the glacier, whereby the melted ice flowed from in a gushing, freezing whirl of snow white and ice blue water. The top of the base had rocks perched precariously on them and as I watched from a safe distance, every now and then there was a small rockfall.

Chalaadi glacier

Chalaadi glacier

Detail of Chalaadi glacier

Detail of Chalaadi glacier

Remembering the Penny Falls in the amusement arcades of my misspent youth I knew that not only does the ice melt continuously, but there could be a rockfall at any time. During my brief period there, I did not see any large rocks fall, but I could see that there was a few large rocks perched on the edge.

Now I could see why people should not only not walk on a glacier due to crevasses, but also not stand underneath one either. As I had heard earlier, this glacier had been responsible for a few deaths over the years. Finally, after spending a while in the company of one of nature’s truly wonderful sights, I headed back down the valley. As I headed down through the forest, I crossed a clearing whereby just as I was halfway across, a baby bear made an appearance. Mindful of the fact that I was baldy-locks and not Goldi-locks, I took a few photographs and made my excuses. Even though I was only a few metres away he (or she) did not pay much attention.

Even though I was nervous as he was big enough to cause me problems I was certainly more worried about Mammy and Daddy turning up. I left the forest with haste, just as the rain started. Then I headed back over the bridge and strolled back along the valley floor towards the dry warmth of Mestia. I was in bed early that night as tomorrow was going to be the big climb.

Young Georgian bear
Paddington bear
Rainbow over Mestia
Rainbow over Mestia

Day 7

They dared to go, where no one would try
They chose to fly, where eagles dare
Where Eagles Dare by Iron Maiden

We arose early. There was cloud cover, but the rain was not expected till the evening and we started to climb through the clouds very quickly after leaving Mestia. As we climbed, interspersed with breaks for water, a quick pace was enacted as we were mindful of this being a long day. The track wandered back and forth through the trees and up the slopes, until finally we were at Cross Ridge at 2439 metres.

We had now emerged above the clouds and there had been snow on some of the peaks, so scattered around us in all directions. It was the most stunning of vistas of snow packed peaks, interspersed with cloud filled valleys. Yet again, another amazing sight in Georgia.

Morning mists

Morning mists

Morning mists

Cross above Mestia

Mountains in the distance

Mountains in the distance

We stopped for a snack. Even though we had climbed 978 meters, we still had another 1000 to go before we reached the peak of Koruldi ridge. We left the hut and cross at cross ridge and started to head ever upwards and as we climbed higher and higher, I started to feel the effects of altitude. This was not a height generally where serious health effects kick in, but fortunately, being relatively fit and having acclimatized over the previous five days, the effects were limited to difficulty in catching my breath as the oxygen was thinner at this altitude. This was not a climb I would do or recommend anyone to do, unless you were fit and experienced.

Eventually, after an hour we reached the Koruldi lakes, yet again the vista and reflection in the lakes from the surrounding peaks was truly amazing. Unfortunately, the clouds were still in evidence so I could only see half the effect of the famous photograph I had seen many times before. Even this was truly awe inspiring. So after a brief rest and mindful of the long day we had planned for, we then embarked upon the final section of today’s climb.

I had thought that the initial part of the climb was steep, but this was even steeper. To get to the first ridge which was around 2,900 metres in height was difficult in the thinning atmosphere. This section would have been tough at ground level, but this was particularly difficult. The first section was finally completed and we were able to glance back and look at what was facing us.

One of the geological conditions of the Caucasus is that the rock crumbles easily here. The next two hundred metres or so was a vast sea loose shale or scree and walking over this was problematic and very tiring. At ground level to take twenty or so steps across this terrain would need a rest here it would be five or six steps, as a result we made slow progress. My guide having lived and climbed in this area all his life and was biologically attuned to the altitude, I unfortunately despite being somewhat fit, found it very difficult.

Eventually we reached the base of the final ridge, at the top a wooden cross could be spotted. Less than 200 metres to go, but as we were facing a solid rock cliff face, we had to find a relatively safe way to scramble up the final section. We skirted through the scree to the right and scrambled gingerly and slowly up the top. As we were now over 3,000 meters , the thinning atmosphere along with the snow and ice on the rocks did not make this an easy task by any stretch of the imagination.

Morning mists

Above Koruldi lakes

Climbing on Koruldi ridge

Climbing to the top

Snowy Koruldi ridge

Koruldi ridge under snow

Onwards and upwards we scrambled, the most difficult part was when rocks I was gripping snapped off in my hand and given that this ridge was only one or two metres in width with significant exposure on one side this should have been unnerving. However, as all hill walkers and mountain climbers know, it is not only the climb but also the views and what a view was starting to unfold! So the drop was not even noticed.

After a while we reached a plateau just below the cross. The guide asked me: “Do you think you can continue?” as I wheezed for breath despite the strong wind. I glanced at the narrow ridge, and ignoring any discomfort replied let’s do it. Half an hours scramble later we were at the cross.

This was truly where eagles dare, the view was incredible. I could see down the 1,998 metres we had climbed that day to the distant point we had started from. On the other side there was Ushba mountain and at least eight glaciers on sight. Yet again Georgia had surprised and enchanted me as I stood beside the wooden cross.

I had seen many sights on my trip but this not only exceeded all of them but this was also worth every sinew of effort that day. Not only was I standing at the highest altitude I had ever been at 3328 metres, I was looking at a view that few people had ever seen or could imagine.

We ate and drank a little and took in the view, but with cloud swirling around us, this was not a place where we could stay too long. As was once said by a famous mountaineer, “Once you respect the mountain, then the mountain will respect you”. There was a difficult descent to follow and we did not want wind, snow and ice to delay and hinder us along the narrow ridge.

View form the cross on Koruldi ridge

View from the cross on Koruldi ridge

Descent from Koruldi ridge

On the way back

We scrambled down and soon we got to the edge of the scree field, fortunately, this is easier to descend than ascend and we made rapid progress towards the lakes. At the side of the lakes with his equipment was a professional photographer. The clouds had now swirled around the other peaks so there was no reflection in the lakes at this stage. We chatted to him, and he advised that he had been there for a few hours and will wait a few hours more, however the clouds did not break at all.

So even though I was disappointed, I got somewhat of a good photograph whereas the professional photographer got none at all. We left him and rapidly made our descent. After a few hours we were back in Mestia again.

Descent from Koruldi ridge

Descent from Koruldi ridge

Descent from Koruldi ridge

Pastoral view on the way back

Day 8

This was the day I left to journey back from Mestia and once again I was up early to get the bus back to Tbilisi. Remarkably, despite the awful driving I had witnessed before, this was even worse. What death wish possesses the Georgian drivers I do not know, but this really was insane this day.

This was the day I left to journey back from Mestia and once again I was up early to get the bus back to Tbilisi. Remarkably, despite the awful driving I had witnessed before, this was even worse. What death wish possesses the Georgian drivers I do not know, but this really was insane this day.

After a few hours we descended from the mountains and reached the town of Zugdidi, and here the driver slowed briefly as an unmarked police car stopped him and had a chat. Ten minutes after they had gone he was back to his old tricks! Again, the same Georgian methodology to accelerate as fast as you can, get as close as you can to the vehicle in front, beep the horn and overtake whenever you feel like.

On three separate occasions cars had to swerve off the road into the dirt to avoid us. Once going past the lorry he suddenly came upon a bull in the middle of the road. How he swerved pass the bull, I will never know. At the back of the bus just behind me, were two Georgians who were drinking vodka. They were extremely drunk and eventually passed out.

Given the driving that was probably a good idea. When they were awake, one of the two drunks on realising I spoke English kept repeating the few words of English he knew. "We are professional drinkers", "We start early", "That is our style"…..This was going to be a long journey and it sadly took them a while to pass out.

The van swayed from side to side with the speed he was trying to achieve and on occasions I was wondering - was it just other vehicles he was trying to overtake or was it the aeroplanes in the sky?! The only four times he slowed down was when there was speed cameras or police cars. In UK and Ireland there are too many speed cameras whereas in Georgia there are clearly not enough.

With one brief stop, and at least thirty near death head on collisions, that was a very long nine hours and twenty seven minutes. Eventually we arrived in Tbilisi and I was never so glad to see a traffic jam in my life, the funny thing was the driver was eventually caught breaking a red light there and was pulled over by the police to get a ticket.

Day 9/10

After all the excitement of the previous few days, a restful day wandering around the narrow quaint, historical sights of Tbilisi was just what the doctor would order. Suffice to say the churches, monuments, historical buildings and new buildings are well worth wandering around at a leisurely pace. After taking the gondola to the castle which is beautifully lit up at night I booked a day trip for the following day up to the town of Stepantsminda, which is formally known as Kazbegi.

Thankfully, just around the guesthouse from where I was staying was the pickup point for the minibus day trip. Also on the bus were a Kazakhstani couple and two Ukrainian women. We sped out of town and for once, this driver did not do his best to kill us all. Soon after an hour of winding along the Georgian Military highway, which eventually leads to Vladikavkaz we arrived at the glorious and picturesque reservoir at Zhinvali. A brief stop happened here, photographs were taken and we continued on to the fortress of Ananuri.

Ananuri fortress

Ananuri fortress

Zhinvali reservoir

Zhinvali reservoir

This is a wonderfully picturesque fort overlooking the reservoir with a beautiful bell tower and a historical church enclosed within its perimeter walls. After a short while wandering around this ancient set of buildings and managing to avoid the hustlers and hucksters on the many tourist stalls it was back on the bus to continue on.

A brief but boring stop at the convergence of two rivers, a so called black river and a white river. This was easily the worst sight of my entire stay in Georgia, a few minutes there and thankfully we continued on towards the next stop. The minibus started to climb up along the road towards the Jvari pass. Shortly we came to park at a soviet viewers platform with a crumbling platform at least a 500 metres drop below. After a short while there I ventured the short distance across the road uphill to a nearby cross, from where a wonderful view of the river valley ensured. Then it was onto the Soviet Georgian friendship monument. This typical piece of Soviet kitsch was stunning in its brutality and ugliness, a real blot on the landscape just like Dublin’s spire.

Monument of Russo - Georgian friendship

View from the monument of Russo - Georgian friendship

Back on the minibus we went as it ventured ever upwards until we reached Jvari pass at 2387 meters, the highest point on the Georgian Military highway. Shortly after this point on our descent we noticed a huge orange scar on the slopes of the mountain to our left. The bus stopped at a large car park with some stalls beside the road.

We then proceeded to a pipe emerging from underneath the road, where many people were partaking of the waters by filling their bottles with this miracle mineral water. To be honest, after taking a sip of it, it taste remarkably salty so I decided against filling my water bottle on this occasion.

Travertines near Georgian Military Highway

Travertines near the road

After a short stop we recommenced our journey down towards the town of Stepanstsminda. We arrived eventually as we passed through yet another valley with huge mountains on either side. This town is ringed with guesthouses as it is close to the remarkable Kazbegi mountain.

We passed through a suburb and then commenced up the most remarkable ‘driveable’ dirt track I have ever seen. Large rocks and boulders littered the track and after zig zagging and bouncing over the boulders and rocks on that criss-crossed the track, somehow the driver got us up the 500 metres to the top. The turbulence was worse than when we hit the air pockets in the thunderstorm over Azerbaijan just a week previously.

Personally, I don’t know how he did it, we were bounced from pillar to post. This track would have been hard to walk up, however to drive seemed to be totally insurmountable. Once again Georgian drivers prove themselves unique, however, I wonder will the 4x4 jeep pass it´s next mot test?

The church at the top with the snowy top of Mount Kazbegi is one of the most iconic photographs of Georgia. Sadly, with thick cloud and rain there was no sign of the mountain. We wandered around the unique atmospheric church which overlooks the town of Stepanstsminda from a substantial height. After a while we had to go through the bumpiest journey imaginable back. From here a brief stop for lunch on the way back and then after a relatively safe driving experience we were back in Tbilisi and the 9 hour day trip was over.

A few pints watching football in the Hangar bar later was followed by an arranged taxi to the airport to get a flight to Warsaw for the Ireland v Poland match but that folks is a story for another day….

Tsminda Sameba below Kazbegi

Tsminda Sameba above Kazbegi village

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