I had been watching the forecast for weeks, waiting for an opportunity to go out to the highest mountains of the Caucasus in the Svaneti region of Georgia. Even so on arrival everything was very damp and it was another couple of days until I was treated to some fantastic flying in big mountains. Mestia was a pleasant town to stay in readiness for the right conditions in the unstable spring (late May) weather patterns.
The Cross is a popular day trip for many tourists walking up directly above Mestia. It also is a perfect place to start flying at the top of several sunny spurs. When I arrived conditions were perfect but after a quick lunch everything was cast into shadow and I hesitated until I saw a soaring bird circling. I flew there after a nil wind running launch and carefully found the core. Light lift at first but it gradually improved – but unfortunately it had just started raining! I landed 200 metres higher and further along the ridge and quickly packed up. Five minutes later the light rain had stopped again. Anyway things were a little gloomy so I continued up the ridge with the Dutch couple and others. We got a little carried away and kept going until over 3000 metres – but finally turned back, and I ran down to where I’d left my glider.
In no time at all I’d flown up past the highest point I’d reached by foot. A couple of minutes later and I waved to the guys who had continued upward, now resting on rocks amongst the snow at around 3200 metres. Climbing above them I got great views of the glaciers draining Ushba, one of which we’d walked to a couple of days earlier. A valley wind was coming from the west and while I’d intended to land in Mestia (as it was already late, after 5pm), I tried crossing over a spur so I could explore the impressive western flank of Ushba.
On the second attempt I made it over and I pushed out along the Becho (Mazeri? Dolra?) valley. Meanwhile a large rain bearing cloud approached from the west and prompted me to follow my nose towards the Russian border. I was essentially biding my time, waiting for the shower to pass while I soared the magnificent bluffs of Mazeri peak, looking down to the pounding Mazeri waterfall in full flow.
I was still intending to land in Mestia that night but I could see that rain had set in there and in fact was beginning to spread in my direction. I pushed further along and spent some time soaring a spur at 3000 metres so I could land in the perfect spot. There was a brief snow shower 20 minutes before landing but otherwise I’d stayed dry as precipitation and cloud engulfed the areas I’d just come from.
With full phone reception I communicated with the Slovakians about whether I’d make it back to Mestia for the jeep ride to Ushguli the next day. But in the end I decided that I was in a pretty nice spot and I’d be silly to try and go anywhere else at this late hour.
I found a hollow in the rocks where I could put my head under and had a relatively uncomfortable night, owing partly to my inflatable mattress puncturing on the rocks. At 5am I got up, brushed the frost off my bivouac sac, and walked up the ridge to enjoy the views while waiting for sunrise.
Meanwhile my phone was on it’s last legs, and I had a lazy few hours with it plugged into my solar panel while I dozed. But unfortunately that wasn’t enough and it was completely dead, I only had my vario and SPOT messenger, as my GoPro seemed to have (and did have) the same file corruption problem as during my big vol biv in Nice. I didn’t know the time exactly but after realising I would not be able to revive either I took off, noting the day was already pumping.
Making up time I made good progress out into the main valley and to the west. Mt Elbrus appeared behind the big mountains of the Russian border. I had entertained thoughts of crossing to the range to the south and flying a big loop but in the end headwind and lots of narrow forest filled valleys prompted me to turn back and fly past Mestia to the other end of the valley. Here I tried crossing toward the village of Ushguli and the highest mountain in Georgia. A strong headwind and heavy sink coming over the pass prompted retreat again. Shortly afterward I top landed upwind of Mestia, had a break, and ended up landing in Mestia at around 7pm that evening as clouds blocked the evening sun. It was an exceptional day where I covered roughly one hundred kilometres and cloud base rose to well over 4000 metres, perhaps 15,000 feet.
That evening I learnt that I’d been seen by Georgia Border Patrol and I’d caused quite a fuss, until they were told of my SPOT beacon. The woman owner of my guest house who had initially begged me not to fly was now very proud to have put in a good word for me – “he is strong… he is smart”. The next day I was asked to stay five kilometres away from the border, which suited me fine as it was rather windy and I wouldn’t have wanted to leave the main valley. Things became funky with big clouds and showers added into the mix so I landed after two hours flying and some great photos of the area. Like my time in Europe there had been limited opportunities to fly over the week but when it pulls itself together the conditions are amazing.