Glimpses of the World

Everyone knows that the most exotic way to travel is by cruise boat. Imagine waking up in the morning with a beautiful view of the open blue ocean or another country or island you have never seen before!

Pyramid of Ice: Mount Kazbek - Georgia 

Kazbek Mountain (5,047m) whose peak and slopes are clad in glaciers with ridges like startling snow bridges is one of the most popular peaks in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia...

The main massif of the Caucasus, the Great Caucasus, extends like a wall from Sochi to 100km north of Baku. This range, which has few passes, is almost 200km in length and rarely falls below 2,000m in altitude. From the 5,047m peak of Kazbek one can see 5,642m Elbruz to the north and other peaks in its vicinity... The central section of the Great Caucasus' volcanic massif is covered in large glaciers. Elbruz and Kazbek are large volcanoes which erupted in the quaternary period.

The valleys and slopes of the Caucasus are covered in emerald pasture, the result of abundant rainfall precipitated by the Black and Caspian Seas. The lack of scree and the fact that these slopes keep their vegetation even in September together make the approach to the mountain relatively easy. From Tsminda Sameba Church on the hill above Gergeti village there is a view of the village, the Terek Gorge where Kazbegi town is located, and Mount Kazbek itself.

The classic climbing route of Mount Kazbek - and relatively speaking the easiest - runs the north face. The other faces require difficult technical climbs on ice. The long but steady gradient (40-50) of the ice and compact snow wall of the north face extends to just below the peak. To cross the final conical peak, a short but somewhat difficult ice climb (Front-point) is required.

The meteorological station is a veritable eagle's nest at an altitude of 3,600m. The east slopes of the Terek Gorge far below can be made out from the station.

Next to Shara (5,068m), Kazbek is Georgia's second highest peak with an altitude of 5,047m and second to Elbruz in popularity among the peaks of the Caucasus. Its magnificent pyramidal shape has earned it its status as the Matterhorn of the Caucasus (the best known pyramid-shaped peak of the Alps)... The climb begins from Gergeti village on the west slope of the Terek Gorge. Near the start of the climbing route on a hill above the village is Holy Trinity church, or Tsminda Sameba as it is known in Georgian. The church, a place of pilgrimage since the Middle Ages, was connected to the village of Gergeti in the Soviet era by a cable lift. At present, this system is in a state of ruin and can no longer be used... 

The peak of Mount Kazbek at 5,047m resembles a snow tumulus. When the last member of the climbing team reaches the peak, members of the group share feelings of excitement and delight.

 

Looking due west from the peak of Kazbek a nameless 4,000m peak can be seen in the foreground and other 4,000 and 5,000m peaks of the Central Caucasus lie on the horizon. Visible to the right is the broad and narrow pyramid shaped 5,642m Mount Elbruz.

I traveled to Tiblisi, capital of Georgia, intending to write a general account of the Caucasus and found myself joining a group of Germans on a three-day climb to the 5,047m peak of Mount Kazbek after being put in touch with David Rakviashvili, founder of the Georgian State Mountaineering Guide Training School.

After two days of preparations we set off for Tiblisi in a VW bus belonging to "Caucasian Travel" with two trainee guides from the school, Ghia and Gotcha. The Germans were to make their way directly from the airport to the town of Kazbegi at the foot of the mountain.

Following the military road after Tiblisi, our route entered the deep gorge of the Aragvi river where several old churches, monasteries and medieval castles were located. As the road climbed through steep slopes of emerald pasture the tips of the highest volcanic peaks of the Caucasus appeared, some of which are still active. We took a break near a hot sulfuric spring along the 2,379m Kerestovy Pass - a clear indication of geothermal activity. 

Tsminda Sameba Church consists of a bell tower at the entrance and a main building planned for pilgrimages. On the walls of Holy Trinity Church are beautiful carvings and designs(above).
The solid, stone-built meteorological station provides the main camp for climbs of Kazbek. This building, situated below the south wall of Mount Kazbek, was constructed in the 1930's by convicts (below).

After a 4 hour journey we arrived in Kazbegi set on the slopes of a deep narrow gorge and crossed to the village of Gergeti on the opposite side to meet our guide Nick and the German mountaineers. From Kazbegi we had an awe inspiring view of the glacial pyramid of Mount Kazbek. Our guide informed us that the eastern face within our view was a very difficult climb, but the north face, the classic route, was relatively easy. We gave him the benefit of the doubt. Kazbek, first climbed in 1868 by Douglas Freshwill, is the second-most popular peak of the Caucasus (following Elbruz). Especially liked by Soviet and Georgian mountaineers, its proximity to Tiblisi and its routes of varying degrees of difficulty offer pleasures for climbers of all levels. Each year this "Matterhorn" of the Caucasus is climbed by 100-150 people.

We lost little time in Gergeti and followed a winding path which led past Holy Trinity church. We reached this crown of the steep bank above the village after almost three hours of climbing over green ridges. We searched for a suitable place to cross the muddy, furiously flowing glacial melt to the main block of the glacier. The melting effects of August heat had caused a magnificent waterfall to issue from its tip. Kazbek massif and the meteorological station where we were to spend the night were on the other slope of the glacier - it would take a good half hour to cross.

The solid, stone-built meteorological station provides the main camp for climbs of Kazbek. This building, situated below the south wall of Mount Kazbek, was constructed in the 1930's by convicts (above).
The lower sections of Gergeti glacier are rather broad and level. The slight gradient means that these sections can be attempted without crampons. On the opposite side of the glacier rises the peak of Kazbek... (below)

In climbing Kazbek the number of crevasses begins to increase in the upper sections of Gergeti glacier. The side sections of the glacier are covered with earth or moraine. Behind it extends the ridge of the 4,360m peak of Ortsveri.

 

 

Assistant guide Ghia taking a break next to a shepherd's shelter on the last green hill before Gergeti glacier.

People from Gergeti village who set off early in the morning for their fields return home as evening approaches.

The strenuous eight-hour climb had robbed us of our appetites, and we could manage no more than one helping each of the tasty goulash and potato feast prepared by Nick.

The following day we climbed to the 4,200m Ordzveri peak to acclimatize ourselves to the altitude. At certain points the glacier narrowed to such an extent that we were forced to balance like acrobats navigating a tightrope. Views of the awesome south face of Kazbek streaked with magnificent ice corridors set our adrenaline flowing in anticipation of the following day's climb. Unfortunately, the view from the peak was obscured by clouds, and after a four-hour climb we returned to the met station. Having recovered from the previous day's exhaustion, we spent a merry evening of conversation oiled with vodka around the glowing stove.

At 3 a.m. we rose to climb the peak, but were forced to wait for three more hours by violent, howling winds. By 6 a.m. the wind had settled, and we set off by the weak light of our head lamps along the glacier, wearing safety belts and ropes winding around deep abysses. Sometimes we were forced to leap over snow bridges and across narrow chasms. Every mountaineer's nightmare is falling into the black bottomless depths of green-blue ice chasms. As the sun rose, it colored the ice yellow and slowly began to warm us. The glacier turned sharply to the right towards Kazbek and began to level off, making walking much easier.

Chasms could be found here too, but the altitude left them snow-filled. Passing below the mountain's N-NW face we reached a plateau resembling a great desert. We could see several peaks of the Caucasus, including the Elbruz group to the north. After a tea break we began the ascent of the north face. The 45-50 gradient hard-snow slope was somewhat daunting for the two inexperienced German climbers, but, wearing crampons, we emerged from the steep section to a pass at 5,000m. A hundred meter wall of ice separated us from the peak. After an hour's efforts on the steep gradient with a fixed line, we reached the peak and the white pyramid atop it. A magnificent panoramic view of the Caucasus extended before us on this clear day, but after taking photographs our exhilaration turned to weariness and aching knees on the seemingly endless descent.

Georgian Nick guided the team staying in the single room of the meteorological station.

Having limped back down to camp with an enormous blister on my heel I crept into my bunk with the mellow notes of Gotcha and Ghia's Georgian folk songs soothing my aches, calling my dreams. The following day we continued our journey down the Gergeti glacier which had been transformed by the sunny weather into a network of small canals, meeting at the head of the glacier in a splendid waterfall.

As we were resting against the walls of Trinity church gazing at Mount Kazbek, an enormous eagle glided into view, surfing the wind currents. As I followed it through my telephoto lens I was tinged with admiration mixed with envy. How many times a day could its wings bear it to the peak? If man could be bird it would have to be the eagle...

 

To acclimatize the team, Ortsveri peak (4,360m) was climbed: a long, sharp ridge...(left) Looking to the south-east from the meteorological station, the Caucasus can be seen to fall (progressively) in altitude towards the east. Trekking routes abound in this section of the Caucasus (right).

In a few places the Gergeti glacier has transformed into rivers..


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