Caucasus Climbing: Svanetia logistics

The Soviets have climbed extensively in Caucasus before the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Many routes date back to that time and there is very little information about the new ones.

The most recent guidebook was published in 1991 and it’s a selective book called Classic Climbs in the Caucasus by Friedrich Bender. The most recent definite guide is Alexander Naumov’s Gory Svanetii. It was printed in 1985 and it has been out of print for decades. I found it on the internet and made a small reprint in English. Please ask further details, if you wish to have one.


bender  Gory-Svanetii 

From what I’ve seen and read I’ve understood the area is huge and it’s in nearly virgin conditions. Compared to the Himalayas the the Caucasus has a relatively low altitude which is a big advantage since you don’t have to spend time trekking and acclimatizing before the climbs.

During our two weeks in Mestia we reasoned the Caucasus is quite much like the Alps but the mountains are slightly higher and there are no huts or ski lifts.

Ushba on Flickr by Mikheil Samkharadze

Ushba on Flickr by Mikheil Samkharadze

The most sought after mountain in the Caucausus is the Ushba. It has twin summits and it’s located on the Russian border zone but both summits are on the Georgian side. Both summits have very few ascents each year. They say it’s the Matterhorn of Caucasus but that’s an understatement.

In technical terms it may be roughly the same but the approach, the exposure and the weather conditions add up significantly. And there are neither fixed ropes nor huts. The overall exposure is quite much like doing the Innominata Ridge on the south side of Mont Blanc.

Can it be approached from Russia?

The regular North ridge route (Russian 4a or AD+) for the easier North peak (4690m) was previously approached from Russia via the notoriously dangerous Ushba icefall. It has changed with the recent border conflicts, though. According to the Georgian climbers we met the Russian side is currently more or less a closed military zone and you can’t cross the border. Thus, the easiest way up is via the village of Becho in Svanetia, Georgia.

The easiest route to the higher South peak (4710m) is graded Russian 5B or TD. This and all the other routes will approached from Becho, too.

Becho:


Where should I stay?

The village of Becho is situated near the city of Mestia in Svanetia. If you’re wondering which is the best place to stay I’d say the few extra minutes between the neighboring villages Mazeri and Guli won’t make any difference here or there. They are all more or less the same village with 15 minutes of walking distance in between. Climbing wise the real decision has to be made in between Mestia and Becho.

In Becho you can stay at Shalva Kvitsiani’s place called Ushba Homestay. It’s where the climbers used to stay traditionally and he know’s a lot about climbing although he’s no climber himself. The only problem is he doesn’t speak much English. He will serve you local fresh food directly from his farm so the stay there is all-inclusive. If you speak any Russian I think a very good option.

In Mazeri there’s also a nice hotel called Grand Hotel Ushba. This is run by a Norwegian guy Richard and he speaks fluent English but he’s no climber. If you wish to stay in Grand Hotel you should book the accommodation in advance. It seems to be sold out every now and then.

Mestia:

In Mestia there are plenty of hostels so you can more or less drop by and find something. Most backpackers stay only one night and for the next night and there’s always plenty of room.

Both options have sparse bad weather activities. Sport climbing doesn’t exist but both have good hiking possibilities. In Mestia there are more bars and cafes and most hostels also have a WiFi there.

How do I get there?

The main international airport in Georgia is in Tbilisi (TBS) and the second big one is in Batumi (BUS) at the Black Sea. With a car it’s 4 hour drive from Batumi and 6 hour drive from Tbilisi so there’s no big difference.

For current travel options between the cities, please check wikitravel http://wikitravel.org/en/Mestia

The wikitravel doesn’t mention the inexpensive petrol so all combined a rent-a-car may be also considered. From what we saw the traffic was wild but doable if you’ve driven some in southern Italy. The traffic rules are more or less suggestive and speeding is common. The roads have room for improvement but they are ok if you’re accustomed to mountain roads and gravel roads. It’s good to know that landslides are not uncommon on the mountain regions.

Is there any more info available?

Below you’ll have the tourist map for the area. The map describes most important hiking routes and other activities for the area. The map is not exhaustive. Have fun discovering the rest!

The map is lots of pixels and 6,0 megabytes so right click + save as will work best:

Svanetia map

 

 

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Caucasus Climbing: Ushba part 2

During the first try we learned we weren’t fit enough for a fast ascent. Instead, we decided to have the slow approach. In practical terms this was a four day approach plan with a fast summit day. The key was to be as fit as possible for the summit day.

We reasoned a slow approach would consider both: a good acclimatization and plenty of rest. The good acclimatization would be four overnight camps with a steady altitude rise. Starting from 1700m the next stops would be at 2300m, 3100m, 3900m and 4200m. With this kind of scheme the daily work would be short and the rest plenty. Most of the hiking would be done before the afternoon sun, too, which would be a big bonus. During the afternoon the glacier snow tends to turn soft and hiking takes much more effort.

Ushba 2nd try – July 20th to 23rd, 2013

As the plan was heavy anyways we figured we would take a permit for eight days and packed food accordingly. Teppo said this was “the heaviest he has ever packed for a climbing route” and we both agreed it was a good plan. After having packed everything we measured our backpacks on the scale. We had only 17kg of gear and food each. It was not that bad!


The plan executed smoothly. On Saturday we hiked up the trail to the edge of the glacier and enjoyed mostly blue skies. We camped there for the night.

As we woke up to Sunday the sky was clear and we had perfect freeze-thaw conditions until noon. The hiking was as easy as ever and we hiked up until the rock rognon before noon. The evening was pretty and we weren’t tired at all.

The next morning we noticed the snow was soft and it had been cloudy during the night. As this section was more broken and with more crevasses we didn’t fancy hiking up the glacier proper. Instead, we took a short detour up the snow ramp on the left side of the glacier. In the ramp there was a risk of falling but not into a crevasse. During the day we hiked up until the Russian border and the edge of Ushba icefall. In the evening of Monday it was very windy and cloudy but we had good hope for the weather.

The Tuesday morning was very windy and it looked like it was going to rain soon. We discussed briefly about the options but best decision was evident. Glacier was getting softer and softer and it didn’t look like we would have the blue skies promised. Thus, we decided to hike back down.

Getting down the glacier was interesting and we jumped quite a few crevasses. Once we got down to the rock rognon we knew we were safe. At the same moment it started raining. It rained every now and then for the rest of the descent and we were completely soaked before reaching Becho.

We walked directly to Shalva’s place and asked if he could drive us to Mestia. He replied yes but wanted to offer us food and chacha first. Initially our morale was not too high since we were soaked and our dry clothes were at Mestia. But few moments later the food was on the table and we were very grateful for his Svanetian hospitably. The chacha, which is a Georgian grappa, warmed us quite a bit, too.

Back in Mestia we spend the next day drying our gear and went to visit Idris Khergiani, a local climber. We also booked tickets to Batumi which is a beach resort by the Black Sea. The Ushba scored us 2-0 this trip but we learned a lot.

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Caucasus Climbing: Ushba part 1

In 2011 as I got home from Patagonia I decided I’d be focusing on the regions with less travel distance from home. I was thinking the air travel took way too much time. Now after having visited Caucasus I still think the same. The travel time to Caucasus was 6 hours compared to the 48 hours of Patagonia. The granite spires may not be as vertical but there are lots of other things to do.

I managed to talk Teppo in for this project quite easily. I showed him one picture of the Ushba and he was hooked instantly. After having agreed on the main objective we booked the flights.

Ushba on Flickr by Mikheil Samkharadze

Ushba on Flickr by Mikheil Samkharadze


We arrived in Georgia on Saturday July 13th at 3AM. We found a local climber, Oto Jafaridze, through the Internet and he was waiting for us at the airport. Oto had a jeep and he drove us to Svanetia so we could sleep in his car. Oto was also kind enough to buy us Primus camping gas so we were ready for action in Becho the next morning.

Ushba 1st try – July 14th to 16th, 2013

Our first try on the Ushba was a learning experience. We packed food for four days and asked a border pass for five since the weather report said it would rain on the fifth day. We hoped for the best but we knew the chance of success was slim. We had browsed some Google Earth and Summitpost.com but we had no real knowledge of anything.


We learned some lessons on our first try. First and the most important one was about the border pass. For climbing the Ushba you don’t need a climbing permit but you’ll need a border pass which is a permission to enter the border zone. You can get it for free in Becho and you can ask it for as many days as you want. So it’s better to ask few days extra. We thought five days would be enough and we soon realized it was too little. We discussed briefly about pushing the days but as the border is rather sensitive we figured it might be a bad idea not to arrive back in time. The border guards were nice but they had Kalashnikovs and they didn’t smile.

With the first try we had a good look at the route and we got the plan sorted. We decided on slow and heavy tactics for future attempts. In practical terms this was to be a four day approach plan to the Ushba plateau with eight days of food and a ten day border pass. Preferably with good weather at least on the summit days.

Hike from Becho to Guli pass – July 17th, 2013

We knew the weather would be bad in few days and we walked back to Becho. There was one more good day and wanted to check the approach on the south side. The Guli pass is the start of the regular route up the South Ushba and it was the best we could do in this time frame.


Svanetia is the perfect place for hiking. The terrain is rather inclined but the meadows are green and the grass is short. There are plenty of cows and horses pasturing and the animals keep the grass short. The animals keep the paths in condition, too, so the hiking is very pleasant if you can handle the height differences.

Climbing wise the Ushba really seems to gather some cloud. Except for few short moments there’s always quite a lot of cloud higher up. At the same time lower down the weather is good and the lower mountains seem to be relatively free of this cloud trouble. On this day, for example, we didn’t see the Ushba at all but the Ushba Little, only 400 meters lower, was visible most of the day.

The altitude difference we hiked was from Becho at 1600m to the horses at 2850m. The start of the routes would have been few hundred meters further. I’ve posted the workout data for the hike below.

The next day it was raining and Shalva, the owner of place we were staying, drove us to Mestia.

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Norway Ice Climbing

After having failed with ice climbing on the Alps we headed for Norway which has most roadside ice anywhere. Some people say the weather is rather poor in Norway but in my experience it’s always been good.

In 2010 we had good weather in Romsdalen, last winter there was good weather everywhere and this year the weather couldn’t have been any better in Setesdalen. Of course, there was bad weather on most of Norway on all these occasions but the country is long, the weather varies and it’s always sunny somewhere if you’re flexible with your plans.

Haegefjell: Approaching – March 2nd, 2013

Climbing ice four days in a row can get quite dull so we took the best weather day and decided to check out Haegefjell in Nissedal. The weather was freezing but we reasoned rock climbing could be doable if it was sunny enough.

We didn’t have a good guidebook for Nissedal but looking across the lake from the highway it looked like the hill could be semi-dry. We figured we could do Via Lara (4+, 380m) which is slabby rock route of moderate difficulty. We reasoned it could be doable even if it was a little wet. We both understood the snow situation was not the best but nevertheless we decided to have a look.


With closer inspection at the bottom of the cliff Via Lara looked more skiable than climbable and we turned back. This day there was no climbing but this dome definitely got few stops higher on the to-do list.

The effort didn’t go in vain, though. We learned the logistics patterns which will help loads next time. Among other things we learned that in summer one should reserve 50 NOK for the private road toll and 20 NOK per day per person for the camping. In Norway wild camping is allowed but it’s better to keep the local landowner happy. From the camping it’s less than 30 minutes to the routes. Best season is probably early summer (ie. May) before the mosquitoes attack. All summer will do, though.

Setesdal: Ride the Punani (WI3+, 200m) – March 3rd, 2013

The next day after our hiking experience we decided to actually climb something. In the morning we drove through Setesdal and picked the best looking line which was Ride the Punani near Rysstad. It was not like the other ice falls were super bad but we were late in the season. All ice falls facing sun had white sunburn. The ones in the Rysstad canyon were facing north and they had clear blue ice.

Ride the Punani was really good ice climbing. Although it wasn’t the hardest route in the area the climbing was always interesting. After having climbed the route the sun was still shining and we decided to have go on the rock routes. We drove through the valley and finally found something which looked like clean rock. Unfortunately the cracks were vegetated and thus frozen solid. After 50 meters or so we retreated and went for some chicken burgers at the Esso in Valle.

The next day we failed twice on what we thought first ascent attempts. The first time the climbing was simply too hard. Teppo said he’d never climbed ice so overhanging on toprope and we retreated. The second time we found a very nice looking easier ice line a little higher up. We cleverly tried to find our way around the back with snow mobile tracks but we got lost and never found it.

Hjartdal: Uknown ice fall (WI4, 200m) – March 5th, 2013

On the final fourth day we had a plane to catch. We drove back towards Oslo and stopped for some ice in Hjartdal. From Hjartdal it’s about three our drive to the Oslo airport.


All three ice falls in Hjartdal are in the WI3 and Wi4 range. They aren’t in any guidebooks. The Norwegians aren’t too good in documenting their ice climbs. In winter there is so much ice in every corner of the country that they don’t bother.

Hjartdal was a very good last stop for this short trip!

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