After returning from Kazbegi the unsettled spring weather returned and after several days getting myself far too comfortable in Tbilisi I thought I better return to the mountains to restore some sense of credibility! Just a short overnight trip but a good stretch of the legs to get from the plain right up to the peaks, as well as a nice flight on each day to enhance the experience.
I took the metro (something worth seeing, very deep underground) a couple of stops to Isani and took the first minibus out to Lagodekhi. Given it was 7 LER compared to the 10 LER for Kazbegi I assumed it would be a shorter trip but it took the same two and a half hours and I only started walking toward the mountain just after 11am. This meant I didn’t really give myself time to get fully provisioned (having a fairly random collection of various Georgian foodstuffs) and I wasn’t overly amused at having to answer silly questions for the parks people before promptly losing the route for the first part of the walk to the base of the mountain (although with plenty of 4wd tracks and open forest it didn’t really matter).
The birdsong and sunlit forest was really beautiful, although I didn’t stop for photos until it clouded over. Despite reaching cloud from 1700 metres upwards I put in a spirited effort with a continuous ascent to the hut. Here I dropped the pack and went to the spring for a drink. While still in cloud the run down hut and surrounding rubbish weren’t inspiring so I decided to continue up to bushline and beyond. Then on cue the cloud started to disappear and I found myself walking along a ridge with wind blowing up the face.
The cloud situation had definitely improved but there was still patches of cloud forming in front and cloud above, although the higher mid level cloud was blowing away. With expansive swathes of forest in front and below I made sure I was high enough up the ridge to face land if things didn’t go too well – I’d noted the wind up the face wasn’t very consistent. Soon enough I launched and it was quite nice, although I started to realise that the wind from my left was a bit stronger than I’d thought. I had a spur between me and the wind and it took some perserverance and some faith to find some good bubbles in the lee to get high enough to push some bar and get myself on the right side of the spur.
From here it took no time at all to soar up to 3000 metres, where I met cloud. It was nice to see a large number of chamois on the cliffs and I had a strange three second mental blank where I forgot which country I was in. I hung around for a little while to see if I could get higher (if the cloud would clear) but ended up gliding over the plateau and landing. It was actually tricky to get down the last 50 metres as the wind was getting close to trim speed. A lovely evening walk followed, I had six kilometres to the lake on the Russian border but cut it short when I found a shepherds hut with half a roof – better than nothing. I actually used some of the loose palings to shelter my bivvy in case the interior wall fell down in my sleep!
The next morning I woke with the light and was walking at 6:00am. I dropped my pack at the lake and continued upwards into the thin air.
A few stops this time before I reached the high ridge at around 3400m. I’d decided against ascending the high peak as soon as I’d seen the route – a long bluffy ridge and / or a drop in a snowy avalanche bowl. The winds were very light from the SW on the ridge and I had great views not only of the local mountains but also 70 km away the peaks bordering Tusheti.
Less precipitation on this side of Georgia, despite parks staff warnings there isn’t much snow left at this time of year (although I hear it’s been a mild winter in terms of snowfall).
It was time to go and fly! The clear morning views were now being obscured by building cumulus. It didn’t take long to get down to where I’d left my wing but by the time I had the wing out it was becoming unflyable. Wind had swung back to the usual SE and cloud base had fallen to 2700 metres – the height of my launch.
The previous days forecast had predicted an evening storm but the clouds beside me looked like they wouldn’t wait that long! I had to get off there and then or risk being stranded in the clouds for the rest of the day.
Inflight my glide gave me plenty of height to cross the forest. Thinking of the birdsong I pondered flying the lower forested ridges in a long cross country flight, but below the inversion there was very little thermic activity. Anyway I had plenty of time so no regrets at gliding over to the next town.
As I flew over the town I heard distant screams and while lining up a final approach I heard noises of astonishment from an elderly couple and decided to land right next to them. I was reminded of the Georgian “visitors are a gift from God” mantra as the old man in particular hugged and kissed me.
As I packed up dozens more joined the throng and I soaked up my celebrity status. Nevertheless I was led away and offered a taxi at five times the going rate – no thanks – had more stares from strangers as I walked into town, had a beer with the shop owner, and got a 10 LER taxi back to the park gate at Lagodekhi. Here I once again enjoyed the forest birdsong, having a quick wash before taking the Marshrutka back to Tbilisi – amazing what you can pack into an overnight trip.