MOUNTAINS OF MYTH
Even after millennia of conflict and exploration, Georgia remains a frontierland, alluringly beautiful, but elusive.
Georgia has long been a frontierland, an alluring backdrop to millennia of conquest and discovery.
Story & photography by Andrea Oschetti
THE CAUCASUS IS WHERE THE WORLD ENDS. So thought the Greeks and Romans, to whom the region was the fringe of the Oikumene, the civilised world. There you stepped from the known into the realm of myth: Prometheus was chained to its crags, and Jason and his Argonauts came to its Black Sea shores in search of the Golden Fleece. Extending from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus divide Russia to the north, from Iran and Turkey to the south. Consequentially, this region represented the Orient to Russians, who became enamoured with its exoticism. Part of the border between Europe and Asia, it is a land of uniqueness and ambiguity, peopled by a great diversity of tribes: Tushetians, Ossetians, Ratchuelians, Khevsurs and Svans. In the late 19th centur y, with the Alps conquered and man looking for something beyond, explorers such as Douglas Freshfield and photographer Vittorio Sella felt the lure of this mountainous region. All these things enticed me to travel to Georgia, at the heart of Caucasus, as ancient Colchis did Jason. For me, the towers of Svanetia, the summit of Mt Kazbek and a bite of authentic khachapuri – a local cheese bread – these are my golden fleece. Together with Steve White, the editor of this magazine, I land in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. On the cobbled streets of the old town, locals go about their business. Their language is beyond us but the neighbourhoods of dark passageways, staircases and balconies are the stage of myriad dramas unguessed, making us feel like we are in a Dostoevsky novel. Our own plot lines draw us on, first north to 5,033-metre Mt Kazbek, the Mt Caucasus for the ancients. We travel along the Georgian Military road, used by traders and armies since antiquity, and mentioned by Pliny the Elder and by Strabo in his Geographica. It is a raw, forbiddingly remote land: even the road we are travelling on seems to be struggling not to be swallowed by the irregular, mythical geography. As we arrive at the village of Stepantsminda, we are enveloped in mist and banging rain: a veil has descended over the mountains. Only after dinner does Kazbek show itself. Bejewelled with clouds, its peak catches the fires of sunset and dances to the beat of mountain winds. The majestic vision moves me to awe and a little fear. Tomorrow, we begin our ascent of that colossus.
The first leg of the climb is to a meteorological station at 3,500 metres. The clouds are still low so
the summit is out of sight but spirits are high and we make good progress up the valley. Tato, our guide, leads us on, across the glacier beyond, shrouded in cloud. In the blurred landscape, I fantasise about finding Prometheus and freeing him from his long torment. He is said to have stolen fire from the gods and given it to men, enraging Zeus who chained him on this mountain. The myth is ambivalent: is he a rebel or a good Samaritan? I think of the conflict in my own life between ideals and the practical challenges of the day-to-day. Balancing contradictions calls for courage; an effort that does not deserve to end in chains. I want to free him; Prometheus unbound. One of the joys of this trip is to experience the environment that inspired Greek mythology and to retrace the footsteps of peoples we have read of, who we admire. The minimal visibility and slippery ground make photography hard. But I wonder at how much harder it would have been for Sella, struggling with a bulky tripod, wooden camera and glass plates. We re ach t he st at ion to f ind it f ull of nationalities and the flags of previous expeditions. The talk among the teams is that none have summited in the last week because of the weather. The place is industrial and bare but alive with the fire of challenge as mountaineers, experienced or otherwise, talk of past achievements and shared aspirations on this mountain. There are two tables for 20 people. Each group clusters around their own boiler with dried food, sausage, bread and Nutella. Soon, stories start to fly. We sit next to two Polish climbers and talk about Solidarnosc… the vast majority here are from the ex-communist bloc. We share the good cheese and prosciutto we brought. A guitar starts to play a song by the bard Vladimir Vysotsky. A few start to sing. It’s melancholy, like in the West we would sing along to a Leonard Cohen song. The feeling is very different to that at the hotel down in the village. In this near-derelict Soviet weather station, there is a sense of purposefulness. We all know why we are here, each of us immersed in our highly personal, yet ultimately shared quest.
I wake at six after a good night’s sleep. The station is quiet, most of the groups still sleeping. There is no one around in the kitchen and I take over a little corner with my tea and muesli. Steve joins me a bit later and we start talking about adventures, as is our custom. “What do you think the future of adventure will look like?” he asks. It’s not an easy question. Adventure, in the mountains especially, has evolved many times since the pioneering attempts. First you would rush up a mountain and claim a first ascent. Then, came the obsession with the north faces. When all the Eight-thousanders were finally conquered, Reinhold Messner then climbed those giants in Alpine style, without oxygen. The greatest climbers of the last century in my estimation – Messner and Bonatti – understand that adventure has to be internalised.
It is no longer about the undertaking itself, but how you allow it to transform you. If you drag yourself up Everest but come back the same person, then what was the point? Our own goals this day are much more modest. We climb to 4,500 metres to acclimatise, visiting one of the highest churches in Europe. Its Orthodox icons gaze out at a world of ice and rock from gilded repose. I am agnostic and Steve is an atheist, but no one goes to the trouble of building a church in this inhospitable place just for nothing… Evening comes with the news that the weather might even take a turn for the worse. Wind, fog and snow. Our plan is to start our summit bid at 2 am if the weather is good. If visibility is poor, we’ll wait at most until 4 am. Turnaround is at noon, whatever happens, summit or no summit.
I can’t sleep. The other teams are restless too. It’s already been a week of bad weather and tonight might be a good opportunity, the only one for some. The other four guys bunking with us are also pushing for the summit tonight. Everyone has a different schedule, so there is a frantic back and forth in the station’s rooms and corridors. Fortune favours us. The weather has cleared and the night is beautiful. The fog sits heavy in the valley below. The mountain shows its silhouette against the starry sky. Moonlight comes and goes, subject to the whims of cloud and wind. During the magical moments when the moon shines unobstructed we turn off our headlamps. Moonlight showers us with silver and the mountain glows with a ghostly pallor. I feel lighter, pure spirit. After a couple of hours we reach an area with crevasses. We rope up to Tato and proceed swiftly. We are conflicted, wanting to get past this dangerous pitch but mindful that if we rush to the summit, it will be extremely cold. After the crevasses, there are two snow pitches that lead to plateaus at 4,300 and 4,500 metres. The clouds start to come down and by the time we reach the higher plateau we are enveloped, without reference points: a whiteout. We climb steadily towards a ridge where we catch the nascent sun, painting golden the valleys below. The wind buffets us from the west. I try to move the fingers on my right hand but they barely respond. My feet are numb from cold and also a back condition that has returned at a spectacularly inopportune time. My calves burn with the effort of climbing. I am caught between pain and pleasure: we are above a sea of clouds and the peaks of Caucasus reach out heavenwards. We can see Elbrus in the distance. I try to take pictures but I have to be careful not to pull Steve on the rope. Then the camera freezes up anyway. Unencumbered by the need to capture the view, we make good progress and reach a small step before the last 100-metre pitch to the summit. This is the steepest of section all, averaging 45° of deep snow. Tato tells us to hurry, afraid the weather could turn at any moment and we set off, using our ice axes to speed things up. When we reach the peak at 5,033 metres I try my luck with the camera again. It allows me to capture a few shots. Steve and I grin at each other and hug. Then, we turn for the descent. At first, it’s easy and fun. The snow is not yet packed nor too deep. Then we reach a traverse where I struggle: the crampons are getting in my
way. I stumble a couple of times but manage to break my fall with the ice axe. Not graceful, but effective enough. At the higher plateau, we take our crampons off making progress much easier though Steve and I still keep getting tangled on the rope to our guide’s annoyance. Lower down, we meet a lady sitting on a rock. She says she does not feel well and is afraid of altitude sickness. She joins us and the four of us reach the station before noon. After rewarding ourselves with the remainder of the bread and jam, we decide to continue down to the village, rather than staying another night at the meteorological station. The lower altitude and a more comfortable bed are enticing. We make one stop: at Gergeti Trinity church where Steve and I light candles. He lights his to St George, patron saint of England, his homeland, and of Georgia. I think of St Nicholas, a saint whose veneration bridges Eastern and Western streams of Christianity.
We get back to Tbilisi just in time to catch the overnight train west to Zugdidi. We are told that all the beds are taken and that there might not be enough room for my bike. Money changes hands and the trainmaster agrees to find a place for my bike, brought along for the next leg of my Caucasian trip. More out of courtesy than because of the bribe, we are upgraded to a compartment with two beds. A gentle, fat lady is our carriage attendant. She apologises profusely for the sorry state of the toilet. Still, there are fresh sheets on our beds and suddenly the prospect of a good night’s sleep becomes a reality. She wakes us at 5:30 am. We have arrived. There is a moment of apprehension since I can’t find my bike nor the train conductor. Still more alarmingly, the train is also shorter. I run along the rails and jump on the last wagon. To my relief, the bike is there. Steve takes care of the marshrutka, our minivan to Uguli, and we cram in my bike. Our hotel is wonderfully located in the middle of the valley, surrounded by grassy fields. Beyond are the forest and at the head of the valley is the rocky pyramid of Mt Ushba which inspires us as we plan the days ahead. To explore on our own would be a meaningful adventure, even if there is really no point to reach. The v a l l e y s of Sv a net i a a r e l us h a nd enchanting. The older villages are guarded by imposing stone towers, used as protection from
weather and raiding parties since medieval times. Steve and I run past several on the way down to the local police station seeking permission for our explorations into what is a sensitive area, right on the border with Russia. It’s relatively straightforward since we earn the sympathy of the only one with a stripe on his jacket, a well-built man with military bearing: talk of Italian football, movies and songs they remembered from Soviet times doing the trick. This bureaucratic hurdle behind us, we could relax over a hearty dinner. I delved into Freshfield to read what he had to say about the Svans: “Off the world’s highways and out of the world’s contests, the mountain communities went on turning, round and round in their own rock-girt pool, until they were swept at last into the stream of the nations. Meantime the Free Suanetians were free and independent to their hearts’ content. They were as lawless as the Cyclopes of the Odyssey. They knew no restraint to their passions. No man could call either his wife or his house his own except in so far as he could defend them by force. Such a state of things was too ideal to last in this prosaic, order-loving age. In 1833 Russia assumed sovereignty over the district, and as years went on her sovereignty became more than nominal.” The Svans are proudly independent. They survived the Mongols and the disintegration of Georgia in the late Middle Ages, they survived the Soviets. They have retained a clear identity for centuries: speaking an unwritten language and continuing to observe long-held traditions such as blood feud. Freshfield continues: “Our Mingrelian interpreter explained to us the voices [overheard earlier] on the wall: ‘Let us tie them up, let us rob, let us kill.’ Such was my first introduction to Suanetians.”
GATEWAYS TO HISTORY
Inspired by the exploits of Freshfield, we spurn the classic walk to the Ushba glacier, and head instead for the Betsho pass, not mentioned in any of today’s guidebooks. It is the border with Russia and is an off-limits, a militarised area. We reach a checkpoint where we are ordered to go back. We stand our ground, making ostensible displays of our appreciation of the people of the Caucasus and showing them Freshfield’s diary. They argue it’s impossible to let us through and even if they did, what would be the point? “There’s nothing there!” One soldier says. We insist that it is a place for the imagination: the Betsho pass was crucial in the history of the region and we want to relive the experiences of the explorers we’ve been reading about. We go over a map and find a compromise. One of the soldiers has to patrol up the valley on horseback. If we promise not to disappear from his sight and to stop at a designated point, then we can go. Fortunately, the patrolling soldier is less strict than his comrades: “Just wait for me at the meeting point,” he says and leaves us to it. We head up a forested valley, the smell of spruce intoxicating, until we reach fields of grass as tall as we are. We gaze at the pass in the distance. Natural towers flanked by impenetrable walls. What a view! I can picture the caravans,
and the armies of forgotten empires that tried to cross through this gate. It is a small doorway for such an incredible wall, a threshold only for those brave enough to enter this land of myth, the mountains of Kaf, of Prometheus and Hercules, of Cochis and the Argonauts, of the Hyperboreans, of Gog and the fearsome Scythian riders.
TRAILS OF GRASS AND ICE
We continue our explorations next day as we make our way to Mestia, Svanetia’s biggest town. We choose simply to cross the intervening hills, accepting of the danger of losing our way in the valleys. We trust in our outdoor skills, reading the land. Having to observe, you discover nuance. Every view is fresh and therefore full of awe: we are looking as Loyola said, “to find God in all things.” Presence, being attentive to little things, brings fulfilment in life. The weather keeps changing, the clouds dancing around the sun, teasing subtle shades of green out of the valley. Flowers add accents of yellow and white as we descend the other side, crossing icy streams into pasture until we finally arrive at Mestia. We are footsore and thankful, with a strong sense that crossing the mountains has been this way for centuries. Next morning, we leave Mestia and are soon hiking a trail busy with locals dressed in ‘Sunday’ best. The townsfolk are going to a celebration in a small, lone church halfway up the valley. Outside the church, they are slaughtering a goat as an offering. Inside is dark, despite the many candles. One by one, the revellers come with an offering of cooked kebab, or grappa, or bread, or a sheep, or some money. They say the name of a person to the two men officiating the ceremony. The prayers and songs seem disconnected and random at first but they soon find a common thread and a harmonious crescendo fills the church. The singing expands and creates a palpable tension that sends a shudder down my spine. I feel the animated adoration grow and grow until it finally bursts in a cacophony of amens. We leave the celebrations and continue to the Tetnuldi glacier. It is a wall of ice that closes the pass between two peaks. We can see how ice has carved out the valley as the glacier retreated since the last ice age. Its hulking off-white mass seems inaccessible and foreboding but we need to cross
the river following out from under it. We have no guide and there are no bridges or fords that we know of. The current is strong and water icy. We talk ourselves into risking it and fortunately reach the other bank unscathed. There we climb a steep trail to a pass. Beyond is revealed another immense valley, more majestic nature. Ushguli, our destination, lies hours away yet, still hidden.
A PLACE FOR WONDER
We are nowhere, yet I feel we have arrived. This valley, without a name on our map, shows few human marks save for the trail we stand on. The view brings me the freedom that lured me to the Caucasus. From this high point, we are free to spill out into nature in any direction, to become part of it even. Connecting t o natu re i n wi l d pl a c e s interrupts the constant back and forward, from past to future, of our everyday selves. When we are so conscious of our before and after as we travel, we are never present, often anxious, seldom allowing ourselves wonderment. Raw nature also removes us from the distractions of modern tourism: the buying of souvenirs, or posting on social media, voluntarily tying ourselves to home. In Georgia, we allowed no such conflict. Nor did we see ourselves the conquerors of anything. We did it all for the sake of it. Instead of looking for passing enchantment in a landmark, we looked for meaning in things that couldn’t be seen. Places are just places, after all. The happenstance and impermanence of borders, the rivalry and camaraderie of shared experience, the retracing of routes from a just-discernible past: these were the markers on our maps. In this way we felt we’d travelled well, with purpose. We’d been to the end of the world. There we saw its watchtowers of stone – those crumpled up in the collision of continents and those piled high by the industry of man. And the cheese bread wasn’t bad either.
FADING GLORIES Many villages in the mountains of Georgia are fortified with stone towers that inexplicably evoke the 13th-century city-states of central and northern Italy.
SHIFTING HORIZONS Swirling cloud envelops the party as they climb the glacier to the meteorological station, already revealing glimpses of bigger challenges to come.
NEGATIVE SPACE Though clearly marked on maps, the broad plateau below Kazbek’s summit is a near-blank, these trails too, soon to be erased.
LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS Despite their history of often fiercely-stated independence, the Svans and other tribes have also long been devout Eastern Orthodox Christians.
IRRESISTIBLE FORCE The tumble of ice and rock below Tetnuldi has spent millennia carving a grey scar through its lush surroundings, a reminder that nature heeds no stone tower nor border guard.
ON A ROLL To walk into the foothills of the Caucasus is to wind the clock back to the dawn of modern man, when we first learnt to rear animals on verdant slopes just like these.
EATING LOCALLY Staples of Georgia: kachapuri, a delicious cheese-filled bread still baked in almost every home; and kebab, often cooked just yards from the bloodied ground where the goat or sheep was slaughtered.