Above the clouds to Verkhovani

We were leaning back after another feast when there was the most tremendous CR-A-CK above us followed immediately by a great roll of thunder. Half a minute later rain started abusing the corrugated iron roof.  All the gods on Mount Olympus were having a set to. With conversation drowned out, we decided to make a run for our rooms. The storm raged throughout the night. It ricocheted off the mountains and fought its way up and down the gorges. Once or twice I was woken by the frisson of a crack of lightening.  Thunder answered instantly.

Dawn brought dripping eaves. We were in cloud and could barely see the Keselo’s fence. No one was going anywhere.  Breakfast was muted. The night before we had packed the bare minimum to last us for the next three days. Tourniquet, Khatuna and Richard assessed the situation looking concerned. Time for improvement in the weather was limited as we had to reach our first night’s stop in daylight.

We fossicked about; re-organised our packs; read a few pages of our books, made conversation and learned more about each other. Then someone noticed that we could see a tree that we hadn’t seen since the day before. Carlos and Tourniquet arrived with the horses. By the time the packhorses were loaded, their packs balanced and secured, we could see the nearest of the village houses. Tourniquet’s plan was to climb above the clouds.

 

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So we set off above the Keselo, through woods, along tracks used for timber extraction, down a little and up more. The pine and beech tree forest thinned out and we found ourselves not only in Tourniquet’s promised land of sunshine but in flower filled alpine pasture. We climbed and climbed. The cloud below looked like a huge reservoir, with the penetrating mountain peaks surrounding it. Someone would call up or down asking for the identification of this flower or that. “A sort of harebell?” “What orchid?” “Were those crowberries?’ Each time that we thought we had nearly reached the top we crested the brow and another brow presented itself. Flowers became sparse. Shale replaced grass. By now we were following Tourniquet in single file along a sheep track. Below Short Causasian rhododendron clung to rock fissures.

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We rounded the shoulder. Hundreds of feet below the Pirikiti’s Alazini rushed along. The drop was nearly sheer. I remembered some advice that the path would be challenging and we should not be distracted by taking photographs. It was not tempting. I took my feet out of the stirrups in case my horse got it wrong in the hope that I’d be able to bail out quickly if the worst happened.   We were only a stumble away from crashing down the gorge, with nothing to break a fall, and our being swept off to Dagestan.  I saw Tourniquet’s horse bank a big boulder that blocked the path. There was no turning round. I rationalised that the horses had followed the herd since birth. If they hadn’t learned how to tackle these paths, they wouldn’t be alive. It was easier said than done to remain relaxed. The roar of water far below came and went as we rounded shoulders. The path would have to change course somewhere, surely?

It did. We swung left onto a bleak plateau. The sun had disappeared and the wind whistled round our ears but it was at least flat. A horse could have tripped, reared,  bucked or fallen over backwards but one would only have landed on soft grass. I have never been frightened of heights. I had climbed high into trees as a child and had skied down black runs as an adult, but despite the fact that my horse never put a foot wrong, that hour remains the most scary I remember. It had been the thought of what might have happened combined with too vivid an imagination. It put most later trekking challenges in the Andes and Tien Shan into perspective.

A herd of cattle, with their tails to the wind, lifted their heads. The bull, to impress on us not to upset his family, pawed the ground, stamped a foot and growled. We gave them a wide berth. Once on the other side of the mountain, in the lea of the wind, Khatuna announced lunch. It tasted even better than the day before. The khachapuri were still warm. The sun came out. Tourniquet wrapped himself up and disappeared under a waterproof cape. Horses and humans slept.

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We led the horses down into the valley, disturbing large grasshoppers as we went. It was relaxed and enjoyable.  We remounted on hitting a comfortingly wide cart track that linked villages and followed the river Gometsari’s Alazani up stream. It was warm. We stripped down to polo shirts.  Goats with impressive horns,  tufts of grass gripped between their teeth, clung to the ledges above us and watched as we passed below them and their village of Beghela. We bridged the river. The valley widened. Hay had been stooked. Dogs barked. Lush meadows led down to the river. As we passed Jvarboseli the river did a serpentine. Snowmelt had beached rocks and pebbles in the bends. We dropped onto them.

“This is where we ford it.” said Richard.

“Is this where it went a bit wrong ?” I whispered.

“We are crossing in a slightly different place.” He smiled.

I waited until in shallow water before I took out the camera. We all crossed without mishap and then rode along the pebbles. About a quarter of a mile away, on a rock outcrop a few hundred feet above a bend in the river stood one of the Tusheti’s famous towers built to protect the gorge and Verkhovani. It was where we were to spend the night.  We just had to get there first – up the steep side of the mountain on shifting scree without more than a few tufts of grass to hold it. At least any slip would only result in a fall of a hundred feet.

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