First George called Devi hiking. Lets go to Tbatan. Devi is already an old-timer in Pankisi and, having withered in the village all winter, agreed enthusiastically. And called me with them. Nearly dead after my last book translation effort I was immediately in.
Devi will probably appear in many posts, so I should describe her a bit. From her fathers side from some Indonesian royalty, from her mothers side a Baltic German from Pidula manor in Saaremaa island, Estonia. With all that blue blood Devi is still a most amazingly crazy type, who’s running her small mountain guide business in Pankisi valley and Tusheti, preferring less known and less tourist-infested trails. Speaking (among others) Chechen and Georgian. Knows all the locals and mountain trails. She is also unbelievably talented trouble magnet. To get caught by the border guard next to the Russian border, in Chechen national clothes, with maps of the border areas, huge knife and a textbook of Arab language – that takes some serious talent. All in all – a golden find for a hiking nut like me.
There was some discussion about snowshoes, but Devi and George, both experienced hikers, said that we will need them. I brought huge old plastic snowshoes from Mogzauri and we were ready to go.
Wake-up on the Friday morning at 5, at 6 is Gio on the Dolidze street corner, then we pick up Devi from Alvani and around 9 we were in the last village of Pankisi valley, Zibakhevi, at around 750 m. Villagers said the snow would be over our head on Tbatan (but they had not been there). Car remained to Devis friends place and off we went. Weather was so warm that all the jackets and fleeces went to the bag pretty soon and, unbelievable as it is, remained there until the nightfall.
After Batsara bridge we turned left into the side valley and a bit after the nature reserve rangers house the trail started to zigzag up the ridge towards South-West. We checked with the ranger and he thought the snow on Tbatan would be up to the breast (but he had not been there either, no, really, normal people do not go to such places at such a time). Weather was slightly overcast, smell of the spring was in the air and first spring flowers were out. Warm and nice. Maybe a bit too nice. Having walked 2,5 hours Devi estimated that we are on the half way, we had done 5 km and my GPS said we’re at about 1300 metres. Other slopes had some snow, on our trail there was almost none. We already managed to complain that maybe we had been carrying those stupid snowshoes just for nothing. Or maybe we still need them somewhere on the top. Upper part of the route was visible above and there we could see mostly snow-free slope, except for very top.
The only sight worth seeing so far was a campsite, where locals according to Devi live for few weeks in the autumn, in order to gather chestnuts. A little above the camp we reached a snowfield where George spotter bear track, and here we decided to put on the snowshoes.
Soon it was clear that it is better to be careful with wishes – they could be fulfilled. On the slopes, but especially on the road there was more and more snow. As all the previous week had been warm, all this thick layer of snow had become wet and soft and even snowshoes did sink into it deep. With my light weight and huge snowshoes I had it even easy – to an extent, cause most of the trailbreaking was now on me. Devi with her tiny snowshoes could not do much and big snowshoes of George had to carry way bigger body and he was falling through all the time. Pretty soon it was clear that Devi is out of air and breaks became more and more frequent.
At around the height of 1700 m the trail reaches a small plateau, about 300 m long. Things went out of hand. Snow was even deeper here and postholing pretty desperate. On the other side of the plateau I made an attempt to get rid of snowshoes and ascend along a steeper, snow-free part of the slope. This failed, slope was pushing us in the wrong direction and in the end we were forced to make a nasty traverse on a steep, snowy slope just in order to get back to the road. We realized that it is getting dark and time is running out. Jokes became a bit tense.
Last 150 vertical meters were a thick snow everywhere. As we stepped on the untouched snow plate it collapsed with loud sound and I started to look at the slopes above with an increasing worry. Actual avalanche danger was probably quite small though, those snowy slopes were not very steep.
We made it to the summit at about 1950 meters with the last lights. All of sudden Devi explained that the summit hut that we had seen from afar is not actually the one she had had in mind. She wanted to descent to the saddle behind summit, supposedly there would be many huts, where we could find firewood and all. By the moment I had fuck all about any firewood. Boots were totally wet, feet were burning and last 500 vertical meters I had been breaking the trail mostly alone. I told George to take over and promised myself that I do not care about any firewood, I will stick my feet in the sleeping bag and then they can bury me in it, I won’t move anywhere.
Then we made it to the hut. We must thank Gios lamp for that, because my weak lamp would not have helped much to find the hut and Devi had even weaker one. In order to get into the shelter we had to dig first and again my cheap snowshoes were totally worth it, as we had no shovel and fancy snowshoes with tube frame were useless for digging. Now we found that there is no fireplace and window is missing. Quick grog later I thought that now it is time to realize my plan and climb into sleeping bag. Instead those two optimists started to talk that this is still not the right hut and the other hut has a fireplace and it is so much better anyway. I listened to them with a rather stupefied face, but was too tired to complain and soon we were wandering around the wide Tbatan saddle, looking for a better hut.
What we found:
- many huts that were missing one or more walls or a roof;
- one hut that was new and nice, but locked. Having climbed in through the window I found that there were nicely decorated cupboards, but still no fireplace. Also the window was so high that we could get Devi in and out only by throwing her, which is darn inconvenient if nature calls at night,
- one hut, where hut experts decided that it is actually better than the hut where all our stuff was (half a kilometer away). But there was still no fireplace.
What we did not find:
- the hut where Devi actually wanted to go. She had been on Tbatan only in summer. In fact it was her first snowshoe trek. OK.
This last hut was the place where I draw the red line to some chagrin of Gio. And said I wont repack the bag and move to the other place. Not when it is only marginally better. So we went back to home hut with Devi, somewhat morose Gio headed to take apart some other hut, because “he could dry the boots on fire in two hours for sure”. Young man, 27, I always like when people are so optimistic and full of life. Me and Devi, two elder citizens, expressed some mild doubt and then shut up.
Devi was actually in pretty shit state, cold and she really went to sleeping bag now. My toes had warmed up after the grog so when Gio came back with timbers I started to melt the snow for breakfast on his stove. Gio himself dried his own and Devis boots on the fire in front of the hut. Quick soup warmed up even Devi and around the midnight we finally got to sleep. I took my boots off and drew them as wide open as possible, hoping that I can get my feet in again in the morning.
In the morning there was no need to press anything, boots were not frozen. Predicted -10 degrees materialised somewhere else but definitely not on Tbatan. View outside was from some fairytale and all the last night agony disappeared somewhere. Getting back home from a hike is always somewhat melancholic and this time was no different. Gio still had plenty of energy and in one moment he simply went his way. I saw with some worry that Devi is not in a good shape, so I kept close to her and watched that she gets down OK. After all, there was no hurry. Only later we heard that Gio wanted to get back to Tbilisi by five. It is so nice when young people are so optimistic. So when we made it to the Batsara bridge with Devi, we soon saw Gio driving towards us. Happy end, although on our way back we already managed to concoct a next “interesting” plan. But not before the snow is all gone. I don’t want to see any snowshoes for a long-long time now.