Greater Caucasus Mountains
Gt Caucasus Mts, Georgia
William Mackesy’s account of this walk
Walk 1 - Hillsides of Towers, Fire Cross Tower, Khada Valley
We're off! After a day and a half of city and driving, boots are on, packs shouldered and we're marching up a dirt road up a very pretty valley east of the Georgian Military Highway, that exotically named route.
This valley is a green-skinned hedgehog bristling with slender little towers, each hillside bearing at least one of them, sitting incongruously alone in its meadow: you wonder at the point of them, and their cost-to-resources ratio. There must have been one per extended family, and you would have thought it would have been a lot more effective to have combined resources and headcount - but they were in part guarding against each other: it was a land of blood feuds. They are often extraordinarily old, dating from the C10 onwards, and it amazes, given how tall and thin they are, that so many are still standing.
The ridge to our left, between us and Gudauri to the north, is crowned by a slender C12 beacon tower at 2,070m which is our target for the day.
First, we have to cross the stream, which we make a bit of a meal of. Lucy and I dangle legs off the grassy bluff beyond as we regroup.
We now slog straight up a steep, grassy hill, a beautiful baptism of fire and an apt introduction to the steep-steep-sided valleys of the Greater Caucasus. It is flowery torture. I am soon behind, with the ever-consistent Reggie just behind me.
On the sharp, plunging ridge to our right, there are at least three ruined towers: how could these meadows ever have supported such a population? A shocking sign of permanent uncertainty?
Our various animal tracks coalesce into a gentler trail leading into a shallow valley. It swings across to head diagonally up the far hillside to a cluster of old buildings on the ridge-top beside a vivid yellow hornbeam: a ruined tower, a recently re-roofed chapel, a broken nest of old farm buildings, once fortified by the looks.
I'm the last in, my failure to take any preparatory exercise telling painfully.
A paroxysm of delight at the beauty and wonder all around - the endless steep meadow beyond the next valley has an elegant pencil of a tower sitting alone right in its middle; looking back around the deep valley we have just come from, I lose count at 10 towers.
Our path carries on up the green hillside, soon turning left to traverse diagonally up steep meadows hundreds of feet high towards the now-visible Fire Cross Tower; but our group has split, and my rear (of course) section, unwarned, fails to turn, so we needlessly head a km or so on up the wrong valley before shouts and whistles establish where we should have gone.
Our upward crossing of these huge grassy slopes, so steep that you really don't want to try failing, is walking bliss, although the path is narrow, so every step is carefully judged.
I finally catch the others up at the tower and we have 20 minutes of view and atmosphere consumption, sitting on the ruins of the building at the tower's foot. The high Caucasus are immanent behind the next ridges upward; west, across the deep gorge with the Georgian Military Highway, is another high ridge which is the border with breakaway South Ossetia. Behind is the lovely valley we have just climbed out of. Wonderful.
The joy continues: we head on northwards, across more perfect steep grassy slopes and around another falling ridge, to a final col, where a bathetic view awaits of the ski-scarred Gudauri bowl and the huge building site which conceals our hotel, which we reach in perhaps half an hour.
4.5 hrs? Max alt 2,070m. Climbed around 600m
Walk 2 – To Lomisa Chapel, near Gudauri
We are making another climb to a ridge, this time to the C9 Lomisa Chapel, which is perched high (at 2,215m) across the deep, very long-named main valley, on the ridge which forms the border with South Ossetia.
After a dull breakfast in our soulless ski hotel (one thing sadder than a ski resort in Summer is one under construction), we board our minibus at 9.10, and switchback down the sides of the beautiful long-named valley.
Just across the river, we begin the long, pretty-well unremitting, slog straight up the hillside towards the chapel some 750m above us.
Beyond the scruffy yet carefully tended veg gardens behind the village we trudge up (and up) a long, steep meadow, very quickly gaining wide views across and along the valley. At the meadow head, we join a worn old track which angles steeply up through pretty beech and birch woodland, which is already, in mid September, sporting gorgeous autumnal yellows.
My legs aren't what they should be. I find myself very tired and heavy, as I labour up the stony track.
The wood ends abruptly, and we emerge, above the local tree line, into vivid meadows, with views now laying claim to grandeur.
After a short, steep slog, we are indulged with 30 level seconds on a little knoll. From here, it is a steady climb, with some steep sections. I stop regularly for views, so it is a good thing that they are getting ever finer and wider. We get some brief respite with a gentler detour around the hillside, then it is a final push to reach the chapel, in just over 2 hrs. Given that I normally expect to climb at a bit better than 300m (1,000ft) per hour, this is not bad considering it felt like I was struggling. Not dead yet!
The chapel is crouched and ancient, with a single central column, rough dingy walls and tiny windows which recreate the feel of an Ethiopian rock-hewn church. In other words, it is dimly numinous.
Outside, we introduce ourselves to the long ridges and valleys of South Ossetia, which is noticeably emptier and more wooded than Georgia. We hear that Russian patrols hide in the forest, and a local hunter who strayed over the border was shot not long ago. Our ridge climbs steeply to our south; to the north, it winds to the local peak, then on, very green and tempting, for a number of kilometres. Almost anywhere else, it would be a famous ridge walk which people come to experience. But tourism is still in its early days here. Behind us, and across the deep long-named gorge, vivid green ridges dominate the skyline. It is startlingly pretty.
After a cup of tea with the somehow surprisingly young resident monk, who is all smiles, we begin our descent, down through long grass, dwarf rhododendrons and yellowing little birch, crossing above the local slippery ravine-head to the next ridge down. We then drop along the ridge, through meadows and bright, varied woodland. Really gorgeous.
There are plenty of vignettes to enjoy. We pass a group including a naked-torsoed man with a large lamb slung over his shoulders in full Biblical manner, apparently on their way to sacrifice it at the chapel: pagan customs still survive, merged into Christian practices. In the gentler meadow at the bottom, a pair of peasants lean on huge scythes and rakes, talking slowly. Their diminutive hay piles are sharply shadowed and look like malnourished Monets (stunted Sisleys?).
The hamlet at the bottom is nondescript and scruffy, but gets away with charm and authenticity.
What a walk.
Walk 3 - To Gergeti glacier, Kasbegi
This is a stunner of a day. From the C14 Tsminda Sameba church on its perch high above the Tergi valley, we start straight into a steep slog up a long, grassy slope to the ridge south of the deep canyon which leads up, eventually, to the Gergeti glacier under 5,033m Mt Kazbek’s wildly broken western cliffs. The great mountain towers to our north-west, across the canyon. It had looked like a fairly straightforward dome from Kasbegi town in yesterday’s evening light, but we can now see that it throws off great rocky ridges, all spires and crags, with scree and ice for some light relief. The gorge is a mix of bright, gouged rock and bright, autumnal little trees.
The ridge is a walker’s dream, a long, grassy climb into the cracked and smashed highlands: steady walking with going so easy you can afford to look around as you trudge. A strong wind blows from our left throughout, and moments of lull bring brief warmth to our limbs.
We wind through low, cadmium-yellow birch just in the lee of the ridge, emerging onto the grasslands, climbing a steeper step to the next steady stretch, stopping for view-admiration on a clifftop crag.
We dip behind the upper ridge, to emerge at a col below the unreasonably rocky flank of the mountain ahead. To our right, a diminutive-looking curl of ice, grubby even from this distance, around a promontory announces the lurking glacier high above the dramatic upper canyon, which swings 90 degrees below us to march, straight between sheer walls, up to the world of cliff, crag and ice below Kazbek. A refuge perches cheerfully on a grassy patch above its western cliffs, with crazily gouged and scraped mountains behind, with impenetrable piles and drifts of debris below them – a bleak, dramatic world. Time for a snack.
The path traverses the scree and boulder fields above the bowl of the canyon’s turn, dropping to cross a dirty glacial torrent on what is effectively a metal ladder. We climb through a field of campsites near the refuge, marked by stone circles around small flats patches – and litter, quite a bit of it not to be examined closely. Lovely: early-stage tourism.
Back onto the western canyon rim, we slog up steep rocky slopes in a fierce, ever-colder wind, crossing another gritty little stream to admire the head of a waterfall which plunges, all grey froth, into the canyon below, and on up into the bare, grey world of scraped rock littered with boulders below the glacier’s retreat above the canyon head.
I have been behind most of the way up, but pass Reggie chewing his chicken-and-cheese sandwich some way short of the glacier – we are now above 11,000 feet and the altitude is niggling him. The rest of the group are eating in the lee of a low fin of smooth rock by the glacier foot, in an area which must be seeing its first light after hundreds of thousands of years, or more.
I haven’t seen a glacier end like this one: instead of ice cliffs and fallen lumps and a cave with a stream gushing out, this is an at first bathetic, but quickly fascinating, long slope of ice so laden with grit that it is a dark, even grey and easy to walk up: only on close inspection can the pure, dripping ice below this dirty gauze be made out. It is dripping steadily onto the muddy ground, with some fissures reaching back where small streams have caused minor collapses.
It is cold up here, and the empty early morning skies have clouded around the peaks so that we are now out of the sun. The rest of the group have gone, so I start the long descent back to the refuge, where we have fixed to regroup for a hot something. Not much to report of the downward trudge, other than the funny transition as a monochrome world turns slowly to colour again, as the light brightens, the weakly reddy rocks across the canyon become infused again and patches of grass appear.
A cheerful few minutes in the refuge, with a cup of lemony and sugary black tea, before the group is off again.
Back round the rocky bowl to the col, and we have the choice of retracing our steps down the ridge, or an easier, more sheltered valley to the right. As the Americans say, it is a no-brainer. There is not much to report of rest of the descent of the lovely grassy slopes, other than that the views are always beautiful, with the mountain now shrouded in interestingly patchy cloud, so that enticing teases of its upper crags appear and then vanish again. Ahead, across the deep Tergi valley, the jagged mountains look rough, barren and forbidding, reminiscent of the Karakorum or Hindu Kush. The ancient fortified church, store of the region’s religious treasures in troubled times, reappears, silhouetted against the dark hillside behind. The final steep drop to the roadhead is not much fun, but I have seldom descended 3,600ft so painlessly.
Walk 4 – above Juta, Khevi
Weather stopped play on what should have been a superb walk to lakes then to a high viewpoint. Instead we make lovely short walks to a couple of waterfalls.
Walk 5 – above Mestia, Svaneti
We arrive in Mestia in the late afternoon; after a long day travelling, we are gagging for a walk, but don’t have that long, so make this upliftingly beautiful shorter walk.
We set off from just beyond the airport, at the base of the hill over the river from town. We follow a dirt track up the hillside above the river, then turn directly uphill for some while, joining a deep old farm track which emerges out to steep, beautiful meadows divided by ancient lines of little hornbeam and other trees on old dykes, now with glorious views out over the Mestia bowl and, more importantly, north up the wide upper Mestiachola valley to the wild confusion of spikes and madly broken ridges above churning glaciers that constitute the high border ridge.
We swing right (south), and continue to climb, more gently now, up to a knoll, where we indulge in a leisurely admiration of the huge circle of peaks, forested slopes and deep valleys around us, all gilded and shadowed by the late sun.
We could follow the contours round along the mid-flank of these eastern hills, then drop back to Mestia, but that would take some 2 hrs, and we don’t have time; we retrace out steps in the delightfully fading light. 1.5 hours in total.
Walk 6 – Upper Enguri Valley above Ushguli, Svaneti
We are off to the remote valley junction which nestles Ushguli, probably Georgia’s most fascinating mountain village and claimed to be the highest inhabited village in Europe. The drive is long and consistently beautiful, heading east up above the Mestia valley then down into the long Enguri valley which we climb, in a deep gorge, until it debouches into the high, grassy bowl of Ushguli. We are met by a marvellous spectacle of a series of stone-built hamlets sitting comfortably in their fields above a vigorous stream, one of them on the divide of the stream into two upper valleys; the main village climbs above the main (northern) valley to a knoll crowned by a tower and wall and the roof of a little chapel. Towers are the theme here - around 30 of them, slender and austere, dating from the C10 onwards, bristling out of the hamlets. There were more before the Soviet Army did their bit.
We are going to explore Ushguli at leisure after our walk, so we drive on up through a narrows of the main Enguri valley, to start walking at the base of a long, wide, level valley of extreme beauty between high, grassy slopes. (I suspect we would normally walk from the village, but my slowness on previous walks makes our guides cautious, as time is limited because of the long drive back.)
The vast ice-and-rock ridges around Mt Shkhara, at 5,193m Georgia’s highest mountain, dominate our view. Various ice-falls and glaciers tumble off it, the Shkhara Glacier, at our valley-head, being the main one. It is clean white at its top, and very dirty by the time it reaches its base.
The trudge up the track is walking heaven, a gentle, steady climb on ground so easy you are free to drink in the visual joy all about.
We reach the beginning of a steeper, rocky climb over the crushed base of the retreating glacier, with an overlay of dumped boulders and debris. First up is an area of twisted dwarf birch, in bright Autumnal yellow, which opens out to stretch of wide, stony slope with water tricking down it. Hints of the glacier, which had disappeared from sight, show themselves. The track become a puff up steeper, broken rock; at its crest we find we are close under the now-huge walls of the glacier. A final clamber over crazed detritus has us as close as is safe - Giorgi sensibly warns us to stay back.
Glaciers always amaze me, though I can’t put my finger on quite what is so gripping, and they tend not to be conventionally beautiful close up.
A steep wall of ice towers above us, hard to assimilate but perhaps 100ft high. Collapsed slabs choke what looks like a huge ice cave – the freezing stream which surges out around them is too big to wade. This glacier is even dirtier than the Gergeti above Kasbegi. It is hard to see any ice through most of the surface, and the top of the glacier, when later viewed from further back, is jumbled rock. Trickles trickle and drips drip off it; there is a constant scuttle of grit and rattle of pebbles. On the rim high above, big stones wait to crash down – I wouldn’t want to be nearby when they come.
We spend a happy half hour contemplating this grubby glory – and some of the best-ever impromptu sculptures, single-stone piles way above even a giant’s reach. How were they made?
The walk back is a delight. Not much to report, as we retrace our steps (the usual course with glacier visits). The valley is even more beautiful viewed from above, with its wide sward dotted with ponies, its bright, wooded, snowy-ridged flanks and the icy peaks of the Svaneti Range towering behind.
We lunch on tangy cabbage soup in a hut half way down, then walk down the gorgeous lower wide mid-valley. A horseman drives cattle down behind us, joined by what looks like a mounted soldier, we assume a border-guard moonlighting. Beyond the narrower lower valley, we cross the river and climb to the tower and C12 Lamaria church in a walled enclosure on the knoll just above Ushguli. The church is a dark little glory, its walls all faded frescoes, including a soft-faced Christ above the altar. It is so solid and small-windowed that it evokes, again, an Ethiopian rock church.
Through the low door in the southern wall, the long valley falls slowly away, with the Ushguli hamlets, all towers and decrepitude, nestled below. We walk slowly down through the hamlets, revelling in the extraordinary atmosphere of this (unfortunately?) World Heritage Site. The only places remotely like it are the tower-villages of Greece’s Mani Peninsula (and, on a grander scale, Italy’s San Gimignano), and the cause seems to be the same: blood-feuding. Given the rigours of life up here, with months snow, building these must have been an exhausting diversion from the busy activity of keeping one step ahead of the elements. Wonderful.
Walk 7 – To Koruldi Lakes, Svaneti
We were going to explore the upper Mestia valley towards the high border ridge, but a lost bridge means we have to improvise, walking to the Koruldi Lakes on the mountain north of Mestia.
We drive up a long zig-zag rough dirt road uphill directly north above Mestia. 1hr or so, appalling ruts. Attractive mixed scrubby forest, alpine fields, passing a little church on a knoll and a variety of huts. We emerge suddenly above the treeline, into a world of rough grasslands climbing relentlessly towards dark peaks patched with snow.
We disembark I guess some 3,000 ft higher, where the track gets steeper. It is a cool, grey, cloudy day – although most of the peaks around us are clear.
We head on up the track, climbing steadily with some steep sections, to the first lake in 1hr or so. 450m climb.
The early views are westward, across a bowl towards the high ridge which separates Mestia from the Becho valley. They are good, but it is the views which gradually open up to the north which really amaze, though: along the upper Mestia valley to the fantastically sharp peaks – veritable aiguilles – and glaciers around the high Russian border ridge.
The lakes are tarns, really, but pretty nonetheless, nestled on a comfortable shoulder where our ridge joins a more substantial peak. There are wide patches of snow up here: but for the lack of early flowers, it looks nearer Spring than late September. Those who’ve been there see a kinship with the Drakolimni lakelet high in Greece’s Pindos mountains. It is monochrome and dank up here today, but still manages to exert great charm; it must be gorgeous on a good Spring day.
Even more snow wreathes the mountain above us, and there was clearly a fall last night on the Svaneti range south across the Mestia valley. We could walk on up the track currently under construction, which switchbacks up the mountain to get round to a glacier, but we decide to walk on to an outcrop perhaps 200ft above us, where we gaze across the lakes to the high border spires.
It snows on the way back – on 25 September!
A steady walk back down the track to reach our vehicles at 1220, and continue on downward, into the treeline, until picked up at 1.15. I get driven down rest of the track (law of diminishing returns, and I want to get some writing done); I don’t miss the 2,000 ft + of downward plod and messy suburbs around the airport.
Walk 8 – Becho Valley, Svaneti
The upper Becho valley, west of Mestia, leads arrow-straight up into one of the most dramatic valley-heads in the whole Caucasus range, a huge bowl of spires and broken cliffs on the border with Russia, with glaciers falling off their upper reaches and beautiful forests and waterfalls on their flanks and a wild pale glacial river on its floor.
This walk starts at Mazeri, halfway up the valley. You drop to cross the river, turning right onto a good track, which leads you for some 7km through pretty meadows separated by scrubby hedges and copses, then into richly diverse forest of low trees - hornbeam, aspen?, birch? And pine? - with undergrowth including great patches of low rhododendron, which glow white in Spring and are glowing reddy orange when we were there in September.
We come and go from the river bank which, with its rock and pines and misty crags, could be the Canadian Rockies or China. It is raining properly for most of our time, but we are compensated for the shrouding of the highest peaks by beautiful, poetic glimpses of impossibe crags and forested promentories appearing through shreds of gauzy mist, like classic Chinese landscape paintings, missing only a hermit or a scholar sitting contemplatively by a pagoda. We do stop at a tea hut in a glade, which isn't quite the same thing, but it has hammocks slung between the trees which, on a hot day, we would be fighting over.
The trail gains height in steps up onto new platforms of, presumably, long-overgrown glacial debris. We eventually cross the river. A path carries on upstream, but we head straight up the steep hillside, through a lonely army outpost and on up (climbing maybe 200m) to a junction where we traverse right round to a final short climb to some rocks close to the pair of Shdugra waterfalls we have come to admire (and in theory swim in, although, give they are glacier fed, only a masochist (ie Serena) would do that), where we see.... thick cloud. Arrgh!
We retrace our steps, actually perfectly happy as the whole valley is so beautful. Schmaterfall.
16+ km, 4 hrs or so.