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.