NENSKRA VALLEY - INTO THE ENDANGERED HEART OF THE GREATER CAUCASUS
by Ondrej Kameniar. Translated by Jozef Antala
Another photoreport by Slovak ecologist Ondrej, who visited Georgia in 2019 and did several very interesting treks - for example, ran from Kakheti to Kazbegi in four days (via Tusheti and Khevsureti) or explored unaccessible parts of Khobistskali valley. This time, he decided to explore another wild, little-visited region - the upper valley of Nenskra river in Svaneti, nestled right beneath the main ridge of the Greater Caucasus.
This valley is currently endangered by the construction of Nenska hydropower plant, that would flood large parts of the valley (the dam wall is supposed to be 130 meter high). To balance the fact that they plan to flood large parts of the valley, authors of this splendid project decided to remove most of the water from the adjacent Nakra valley through the tunnel. As one can guess, this project faces strong opposition and is already greatly delayed. Also, last year, European Investment Bank, which was supposed to finance the project, declared that Nenskra HPP is non-compliant with international standards. Still, the risk of construction is still very real. But enough about it, let´s get to the actual photoreport.
My journey begins at the confluence of Enguri and Nenskra. Truly an imposing place. On its 42 km long route, Nenskra collects water from numerous smaller valleys and glaciers.
I hiked just a few miles and took a refreshing bath when I got intercepted by a border patrol. Luckily, there were no problems, they just gave me a permit to enter the border area. With some grumbling - like everyone else, they explained to me that "there is nothing up there, no roads or bridges, no one goes there", and so on. Great, just how I like it :) Then they invited me for a khachapuri and drove me quite deep into the valley, to the border guards post.
Beyond, I found numerous “No photos!” signs. Weird - if it´s such a great project, they should put up “Take photos!” signs, so the whole world sees it. Specifically here, there was no sign, so I took a photo…. Korean investor is building a huge dam here. Despite its benefits, the project has faced significant, and fully understandable opposition from locals. But for now, it seems that everything is in vain. Dozens of heavy machines plow the bottom of the valley.
Surrounding mountains are full of colors but the vicinity of the road reminds of a post-apocalyptic movie - there is a wide belt of dried trees and broken rocks.
Above all this carnage still lives an old shepherd. I stopped here for a while, bought some food. And then hurried, out of sight from this catastrophe.
The road eventually disappears and I switch to the "river hiking" mode.
I progress very slowly, taking pictures all the time. It is BEAUTIFUL! I don´t mind frozen legs from the “not particularly warm” glacier water. What sends a chill down my spine is a possibility that in a few years, all this beauty might be irrevocably lost.
The view from bird's perspective is even better - a wild mountain river with numerous branches and beautifully preserved forests.
Or like this. Rivers in Europe used to look like this, too, but most of them have been regulated. From places teeming with life they turned into stinking canals, where you can find only fishes released by fishermen, so they have something to catch. Return to the nature character (revitalization) of rivers is currently already an accepted strategy to combat floods, loss of biodiversity, and desertification of the landscape. Unfortunately, this trend has yet to reach countries such as Slovakia or Georgia.
Alder forest with a tangle of river branches works like a huge water filter. Dirt particles in the water get intercepted and the water flows further beautifully clean. Even after torrential rains. Then, empty river arms get filled with water and absorb the majority of the flood. And during dried periods, this water is gradually released into the environment. It´s that simple - natural river morphology is the best solution, developed over millions of years. It´s time to understand it and stop thinking too technocratically.
Just to stay in shape. It´s good to pump myself up before higher altitudes, who knows, what will come next.
The only bridge in the upper valley.
Looking up the valley with the main Caucasus ridge in the background. Truly magical place…
Here, the section of the hillside broke away and collapsed into the river. The result is a flat spot covered with gravel, where the river calmly meanders and then splits into several branches.
Autumn forest at its best, colorwise. The mixed forest here is similar to the ones in Slovakia but is formed by slightly different species - Oriental beech (Fagus Orientalis), Caucasian spruce (Picea orientalis), and Nordmann/Caucasian fir (Abies nordmanniana).
Deeper and deeper into the wilderness - I am at the confluence of Nenskra and Dalar. The end of the valley is still about 15km by a bee-line.
I found a trail so I could walk comfortably for a few kilometers. Then I found a spot I liked so much that I decided to sleep here. It looked like an only flat spot far and wide.
Taken on the same evening, while collecting some water for cooking.
The next day, I had an optimistic plan to climb to the lake at 3100m and sleep there. No chance. The trail eventually disappeared, till it was no different from surrounding bushes. It seems that nobody ever goes here.
Alternately, I crawl through the bushes and climb rocks at the river bank. I switch when I get fed up with one option or it seems that the other approach works better. Usually, it doesn’t.
It’s been a while since I realized one rule: there is a positive dependency between the beauty of the nature and difficulty one has to overcome to explore it. This one was truly beautiful.
In the primeval forest. The second rule that came to my mind is that mountains are most beautiful when there is nobody else around. Originally, the idea came with the relation to the weather. But here, nobody would be, no matter the weather.
But there are exceptions. Suddenly, three Georgian hikers appeared. I got shocked a bit, and they were too. This encounter was very beneficial because they gave me coordinates of a mountain pass I could cross to get to the Nakra valley and also coordinates of the beginning of some trail, which would get me there. This actually saved my butt….
I had several alternatives, which I was reevaluating during the hike, based on the actual situation. One of them was to cross some mountain pass do Nakra valley. Unfortunately, I didn´t know where it lies. So I had no idea, how high it lies and if it´s even passable this late in the autumn. I planned to try and if it didn´t work, return the same way. But since that day I was able, no matter how hard I tried, overcome a mere 4 (yes, it´s four) kilometers, it seemed I had the only option - cross to Nakra valley, where was the solid trail. Returning through wet bushes would take me too long and, particularly, I was in no mood to do it again. I might miss my duties at Tbilisi University and also would have to limit my rations… so meeting with hikers really helped me to decide. Now just to find the trail!
The upper treeline in the Caucasus, just like in in Carpathians, was often ruined by shepherding. But here it looks like an original vegetation. Birches and rowans with blueberry and rhododendron undergrowth reach up to 2350m. That´s fascinating from the point of an ecologist, but from time to time, I am running amok when I am hopelessly toss myself, stuck between twisted branches and then another one whips my face.
In the evening, the rain finally stopped. I couldn´t believe it, so I set up the campfire beneath the rock and tied the tarp so I could sit by the fire and stay beneath it at the same time. Good idea… not much later started a solid thunderstorm. Thanks to the birch bark, I was able to preserve a nice fire but got smoked pretty well. The smile is a little forced.
Morning view from the smokehouse.
Bushes gradually thin out and the journey to freshly snowed, now menacing-looking mountains is immediately faster.
Ancient birches growing on piles of their decomposed branches.
Can't believe my eyes! Sun appeared! I try to dry what I can but due to the 10°C temperature, it doesn´t go too well. It will take a week for my shoes to dry up.
Found the trail!
Nenskra valley as a WW2 battlefield
Ondrej didn´t know that during the time of his visit, but the pass, recommended to him by Georgian hikers has a name. Bassa pass, 3030m. And this pass has quite an interesting history - it was probably the southernmost point reached by the German army during their drive for the Caucasus oilfields.
In August 1942, German Army Group A reached the Elbrus area as well as the main ridge of the Greater Caucasus and started scouting routes to the south. They failed to penetrate the well-defended Donguz-Orun pass, but crossed Chiper-Azau pass further to the west, that led them into the Nenskra gorge. Soon, they encountered even greater difficulties than Ondrej (because he didn't have to carry a machine gun and an ammunition box). Their original target was Mestia - Zugdidi road, but the wild valley proved to be of too much of an obstacle, even for small groups of elite Gebirgsjäger troops. So, they instead captured Bassa pass leading to the adjacent Nakra valley. Here, Germans built two machine gun nests, so they could harass Soviet troops moving on the valley road towards and from the Donguz-Orun pass.
Soviets tried to dislodge German squad from the pass, but soon realized that direct attacks from the valley floor were borderline suicidal. They had to attack machine guns from above. So they chose a group of soldiers with mountain climbing skills. This group started at the Donguz-Orun pass and traversed the rocky mountain ridge to the south, thus reaching the pass from an unexpected direction. Then they attacked surprised Germans and drove them back to the Nenskra valley. Soviets then chased retreating Germans and after one minor skirmish in the valley drove them back to the northern side of the mountains.
If you would like to learn more about the Caucasus as a battleground during Second World War, book War's Summit: The Red Army and the Struggle for the Caucasus Mountains in World War II, while not flawless, contains the most comprehensive info.
This Georgian specialty - nuts dipped in dried grapes jelly - provides me with fast energy during the walk. Still, I constantly feel some degree of hunger. I won´t get a proper meal till I get down in the village.
Views of Mt. Elbrus during the sunset.
Snow again. Wet shoes bring me a lot of joy.
In the evening it looked that I could expect the freezing, but windless and rainless weather. So I didn´t spend too much time building the tarp shelter and hurried into the bivouac bag to warm myself. But the idyllic evening quickly turned into a nightmare - without exaggeration, this was one of the three worst nights in the mountains in my life. At first, a wind started. Then it got stronger. And suddenly, I was in the middle of the snowstorm with gusts of wind that kept tearing my tarp from below 10kg rocks. The whole night, I did nothing else but repaired the shelter and tried to fasten the tarp up. And even if it held, it clapped so hard that I couldn´t sleep, anyway. Once, I awoke from a semi-slumber and the tarp held only on a few rocks, flailing above me like a flag. I was happy when the morning finally came, but couldn´t say that the situation improved too much...
Due to conditions during Ondrej’s hike, there are almost no photos from the area around the pass. If you want to see how it looks in good weather, check this report with better weather written by noone else than Svanalp (in Russian).
I still had to cross the mountain pass to Nakra. During a night fell (or was blown here) more than one foot of snow. Also on the small glacier beneath the saddle, which got me a little worried. I can´t even put my shoes on, have to breathe inside so soften them up. Packing up in the middle of the snowstorm - the horror continues. Crossed the glacier extremely carefully. To get through the mountain pass, I almost had to dig through the snowdrifts. On the other side awaits me an unpleasant view. This is the trail? Fortunately, that section wasn´t too long so I could somehow climb down, without putting myself in danger (the snow beneath was quite deep). I am at 3000m, the village is at 1300m, maybe 20 kilometers ahead. I hurry as much as I can. After a few hundred meters, I descent onto a small flat spot between rocks. Everything is covered with snow. Suddenly, the surface beneath me collapses and I find myself waist-deep in the water. It was a small lake!
Now I know that I HAVE TO get down to Nakra. Hurrying turns into a flight. After I barge through the snow, I luckily find some kind of a trail. It´s very slippery because it´s raining and snowing, but much better than nothing. I often end up on the ground, but kilometers pass one after another, and I manage to keep myself in working order. Actually, apart from the swamp in my boots, I feel pretty well. But I am extremely hungry.
Finally Nakra. Not far into the village, I found a perfect guesthouse, where they took really good care of me. A warm stove, coffee, chacha and lots of food. The only problem is that I got served also a lump of meat from the mountain goat which was against my principles, but in these situations, one can´t be too picky.