To Gergeti Glacier

Gt Caucasus, Khevi, Georgia

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

September 2019

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 right (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 this extinct volcano 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 sudden 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 and 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.

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