Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Mt. Shkara Glacier

“We should head for the glacier right now as the weather is good” says Vako. "In the Caucasus the weather can turn bad quickly and Mt. Shkara is a 5000 meter (17,000 feet) peak." As we bump onto the dirt road leading around the village, farmers are stacking hay in their oxcarts. The car, by now, is so completely caked with dried mud that we can barely see out of the windows. The rear bumper has been jarred loose and vibrates like a machine gun every time we hit a rock. Above the village, we turn onto a narrow gravel path that follows the milky blue river flowing down from the Shkara Glacier. As we climb higher on the trail, the river narrows and runs faster over the rocks. After a few miles, the gravel path ends. We park the car and shoulder our packs.

Just as we start to leave, two plain clothed Georgian border guards on horseback descend on us and demand to see our passports. They explain to Vako that the border with Russia is just ahead in the mountains. Vako tells them we are just hiking up to the glacier and that we can tell them our names and passport numbers. The head border guard pulls out a small, worn notebook and pencil stub from his pocket. I make up a name and a passport number. Vako translates each letter and number for them. With great care, the guard enters each in his notebook. Satisfied, he gives us a friendly salute and sends us on our way.

After several hours of hiking, we reach the front wall of the glacial moraine. The rocks are sharp and covered with snow. We use our hands and feet to scramble from one rock to another. Every few minutes, we hear a large crack and a big rock comes loose above us and bounces down the glacier. Bam, bam, the rocks crash down on all sides of us. The strong sun is melting the snow above and making the glacier unstable. The conditions for an avalanche are perfect. Little do we know that just one hour later, a large avalanche will roar down the glacier and carry away everything in its path.

The sun is just setting as we arrive back at Eleanor’s in time for a big meal of cheese, bread, tomatoes, and cucumbers accompanied by copious amounts of Georgian red and white wine and vodka.

Ushguli Village at the foot of Mt. Shkara

In the morning we awake to a picture perfect, clear and sunny day. The Caucasus mountains are covered with fresh snow and shine in the morning light. Farmers are leading their cows to high pastures as we drive out of Mestia. One cowbell has a different sound than the others. As the cow passes, I notice it is an old automobile piston instead of a bell. Tea has fed us a big breakfast of cheese, bread, tomatoes, and cucumbers and has packed us each a picnic lunch. She says we can pay her when we return, as everyone goes back the same way through Mestia. I know that we will not be coming back and pay her for the room and the meals and thank her for her hospitality.

As Vako’s 4x4 climbs the ridge above Mestia, we get beautiful views of the medieval stone towers and the twin peaks of Mt. Ushba. We pass several small villages and meadows full of cows and sheep. The road is heavily potholed and it is noon before we arrive at Ushguli. We pass the two lower villages and cross the narrow stone bridge to the uppermost Ushguli village and pull in to Eleanor’s Ushguli Guesthouse. The farm houses are so close together that only a muddy foot trail goes through the center of the village. The green valley rises behind the tiny village and points the way to the huge massive of the 17,000 foot high Mt. Shkara.

From Tbilisi to the Caucasus village of Mestia

The sky is just getting light as we pack Vako's 4x4 for the long drive to Mestia. From the Betsy Hotel I can look down on the city and the cathedral and all the way out to the distant hills. The tops of the clouds are still dark. The bottoms of the clouds are lit up by the still hidden sun and the city glows with a faint purple light.

By 8 o’clock we are gassed up and on the road heading west. We pass the South Ossetia border and the endless rows of refugee houses built after the war with Russia just one year ago. We pass the industrial town of Gori, the birthplace of Stalin. In typical Georgian style, cars and trucks weave back and forth randomly across both sides of the highway. Soon, we catch up with the Georgian Army trucks on their way to the Abkhazi border. There is no way to get ahead of the long convoys, but that does not stop Vako from trying. At every chance, he pulls out of line into the opposing traffic and tries to pass the army truck in front of us. As soon as he sees the headlights of a oncoming truck, he quickly pulls back into line. I tighten my seat belt and try not to look. I turn up the volume on my Nano. The sky becomes black and it begins to rain. Although it is midday, the temperature drops and I wonder if it is snowing in the Caucasus mountains. Soon we reach Zugdidi and turn north. The road climbs above the Enguri River and its huge Soviet built dam. The paved road turns to dirt. Vako complains that Russia still takes most of the electric power from the dam even though it is located in Georgia.

By the time the dirt road climbs into the foothills it is raining hard and the potholes are full of water. Before crossing a bridge that is missing some deck planks, we get out to find the safest way across.. We are now progressing at about the same speed we could walk at. When I see a shepherd herding his sheep and rams I get out and take photos while walking along side the car. It seems like we have been driving for days when we finally come around a curve and see the first stone towers of Mestia.

The medieval towers without windows silently guard the snow covered mountains behind them. We find the Ushba Guesthouse and Tea, the owner, welcomes us. As she shows us to our small upstairs room, darkness creeps up and over the tops of the surrounding mountains.