We took a year long hiatus from writing about our travels, but that does not mean we were idle. Last Spring found us skiing and adventuring over far Eastern Europe and far Western Asia from the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia to the volcanoes and biblical legends of Mount Ararat in Turkey. A lot has changed in this part of the world politically. Changed very quickly and is fluid just as I write. However, we trust in the basic goodness of people and have chosen to return this year to venture a bit deeper. We will probably skip the crowded tourist markets of Istanbul and sadly miss the rich culture and welcoming people of Kurdistan.
30-plus hours of travel, a few days of jet-lag decompression in Tblisi and a long, rugged x-country drive to the Svaneti region of North Western Georgia found us finally in the snowy town of Mestia. We skied every day for five days and had only the rare glimpse of the Caucasus mountains that we knew were towering above. The skiers among you who are reading this will understand the fun we had navigating ups and downs inside a cream-filled ping pong ball.
A day after our first brush with death hitch-hiking down from Hatsvali in the back of poorly shod pickup truck we took another full day to travel the 40k dirt road over Ughviri Pass to, literally, the end of the road in the mountain village of Ushguli at the foot of mighty Shkhara Mountain. Shkhara defines Georgia's border with Russia and is her highest point at 5,203 meters.
Deb skins up just outside Ushguli village with the Shkhara mastiff above.
After two days of windy winter storms and zero visibility the clouds broke and we were given a gift of alpine high pressure sunshine. And we took advantage. Snow scientists know that heuristic traps are at their widest during the first sunny day after a storm. We jumped right in.
As we toured up through the valley and and onto the ridgeline that led to our first 3,000 meter peak both Deb and I anticipated powdery bliss. We talked about how the day was once again the culmination of both our history of alpine travel together and of this particular persevered journey.
Following the ridge upward with ever tightening switch-backs we found ourselves perched 10 meters below the summit. In the windless sunshine we discuss transitioning to booting for the final push in order to keep to the ridge proper and limit our exposure to the two 3,000ft avalance paths that we straddled. Whoomph! The sound that skiers dread signaled the slides we triggered. I was knocked from my feet and somersaulted twice down towards Deb as she stood still amongst refrigerator-sized soft slab blocks. As I lay at her feet we watched in awe as tens of thousands of tons of snow avalance down on both sides of our now seemingly tiny perch. To the East the slides crown was 10 feet deep, to the West 8 feet. At the weak point where I had stood moments before the crown line was a mere 2 inches- just enough snow to gently tumble me over.
Dave Brown, my Luddite ski partner and friend- I know you will probably never read this internet blather, but I know what you would say. "It's good to go now!" We booted up the icy final steps to the summit and collected ourselves.
Deb boots the last steps to the summit. You can see our still intact skin track on the ridge below with debris on either side, 3,000 ft below.
I don't want to sound too dramatic, but, as another friend said after hearing of our brush with the dragon, "Sometimes very small decisions can make the difference between life and death." We slid gently down - where else was there to go? And skied soft and beautiful North facing powder in the sunshine.
I will leave it to the armchair quarterbacks to judge our decisions as the power on my tiny keyboard is running out and the electricity here in Ushguli for a recharge is unreliable at best.