September 11, 2016

Through the Caucasus, chapter one: Svaneti

The first part of a ski-touring adventure, by a band of buddies, in the rarely visited mountains of the Georgian Caucasus.

We’re at 15,580 feet altitude, and the rope is tightening behind me: I have to stop. Stef and our guide Tato are up ahead of me. They look down quizzically. Then I look down, and Jid makes a sign I don’t want to process. “Come on Jid! We’re almost there!” Head bowed, he leans heavily on his poles: I know that position, I’ve been there. It’s the moment when you know you have to stop, when you know it’s the end, that you won’t go any higher today, that you must turn back, so near to your goal, so near the summit. The 980 feet that separates me from that point, the little black dot on the map, and its number: “5,047 meters” (16,558ft). For the past few weeks I’ve been looking at it, imagining it, picturing myself up there, our final goal, the culmination of our trip. We’ll only see it from a way off.

 
 

 

  • Capitals
    Tbilissi, Koutaïssi
  • CURRENCY
    Lari
  • CONTINENT
    Asia, Europe
  • neighboring countries
    Russia, Turkey, Arménia, Azerbaïdjan
  • AREA
    69 700km²
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beginning of our journey

Two weeks earlier, we had landed at Batumi airport to hook up with Jérôme, aka Jid, who had already spent two days locally, finalizing the three weeks ahead. The idea of the trip was to discover the Caucasus Mountains, setting off from the Black Sea and reaching the shores of the Caspian Sea. Staying in bivvies, refuges or people’s homes, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the country’s culture, meet Georgians, and enjoy the beautiful snowy slopes of the mountains.

 

 

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By opting for local transport – little buses of varying speed and rustiness – we were soon in the swing of everyday life. Though outwardly a little uncouth, Georgians are unfailingly warm-hearted and kind, and were curious to know what had brought us here. They are very proud of their country, and were happy to show us around. Thanks to Jérôme, who speaks Russian and a smattering of Georgian, we always received a great welcome, and made the most of the advice provided by the locals we met.

 

 

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After a few hours riding in a Marushka (a small bus or minivan) along mountainside roads, we arrived in Svaneti, in the village of Mazeri, which sits at the foot of Mount Ushba (15,453ft/4,710m). It feels a bit like the end of the road, and we lay our packs for a few days at the home of Batcho, who has created some guest rooms in the family house. We are welcomed by his mother, brother, and all the animals on his little farm, especially Bobby, a big shepherd dog. Next morning, Batcho asks us if we heard the wolves howling during the night… No need for worry, he says, they never attack people, which is reassuring. Then to drive his point home, Batcho explains how to scare away a bear, even though we have little chance of seeing one, he says. Fingers crossed.

 

 

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Bobby, the sheepdog of the house
Photographie: Yann Gobert
 

 

While his mother prepares some tasty, hyper-calorific dishes, we get organized for a two-day trip in the mountains: food, tent, mattresses, sleeping bags, photo and video gear… We set off, each carrying at least 45lbs, along a muddy trail through the village which leads into the woods and to the first climb. We’re pleased to set up our bivy for the night by the little chapel on Mount Mezir at 8,200ft, after a 2,950ft rise through the woods. Since leaving the village, we’ve been joined by two more companions: Bobby, our Caucasian shepherd dog, and a short-legged dog which Jérôme has named “Trumpet”, who doesn’t let us out of its sight.

 

 

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We set up camp, light a fire, have a snack, and run through the safety rules and do a search drill with an avalanche beacon. The sun is still high, and we can’t resist the urge to push a little higher, to relish our first descent in the Georgian snow and catch the sunset over Mount Ushba, which is practically on the Russian border .After a good dinner, the temperature drops fast: the walls of our tent are frozen, and we snuggle into our sleeping bags. Total darkness: no lights nearby, the village is a few hours away, and we’re alone on the mountain. I fall asleep fairly quickly, but am then suddenly woken by the dogs barking as they guard the tent. We hear them chase something for quite a while, and I think we all remember what Batcho had said that very morning.

 

 

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We wake early. It’s still dark, and very cold, but we want to reach the top of Mount Bak before the sun warms the snow. After a decent breakfast for us and the dogs, we fold our tent and set off for the first peak of our trip. The snow is still frozen hard, and what’s more, I’ve forgotten my blades. Stef lends me one and we progress up the steep slope. We finish on foot, still accompanied by the dogs, who are very comfortable and taunt us by walking along the ridge. At the summit (10,781ft / 3,286m), we savor the scenery and the effort we’ve just put in together. The view is superb. Stef and I are reassured we managed the climb; how the descent pans out remains to be seen.

At the summit (10,781ft / 3,286m), we savor the scenery and the effort we’ve just put in together.

The start is a bit nervy for me, as I’m the least proficient skier – my companions met in the Alpine Chasseur regiment. After the first three turns and their good advice, the rest of the way down is pure pleasure, in slightly heavy snow. We arrive back at the village, still accompanied by the dogs, which came down as quickly as us and then show us the way back to Batcho’s.

Unfortunately, the weather in the next few days stops us from taking other hikes near the village, so we decide to head off on the second stage of our journey…

Next chapter: Kazbegi

 

 

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Gobert
About the author
Yann Gobert
Passionated by outdoor sports since my childhood, first mountain biking in '91 and then road biking. Passion for running came long time after, to prepare a trek in Nepal in year 2002. Quickly, I was bored of road runs, so I did lots of trails in 2005 before start the ultra trail with the CCC in 2007. I re- discovered the pleasur of biking with new practices: The fixed front chain-wheel and the triathlon. Today, I want to train myself without injuries, improve without getting bored and, the most important to me discovering new sceneries; and new feelings. My project is to do hike-runs beeing autonom in wild regions.
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