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Breaking new trails in the Caucasus

Kirra Balmanno lives for challenges. Few people make the cut as a veterinarian. Even fewer win high-altitude ultramarathons. Yet Kirra can list both achievements on her CV. When it came to uncovering the wild trails of Georgia’s Caucasus, there was only one woman for the job. This is her first-person account of the adventure.

   

We sat there on twin boulders, holding our breath in the hope that the sun’s light might just slip through the clouds and give us a sunrise show over Mount Kazbek, standing dormant in the background. A local dog had followed us to the viewpoint and seemed to mirror our enthusiasm coupled with exhaustion as the three of us gazed to the East. Every few minutes a gentle yawn from one of us would set the others off. I hadn’t seen my cameraman this relaxed in the presence of a canine since we landed in Georgia. 

  

  

Accumulated weariness from a poor night’s sleep at 3001m and a pre-dawn alarm to catch the golden hour had us sitting there calm and content, much like the volcano herself. We had run from Omalo to Kazbegi. A ten-day journey for hikers neatly packed into a three day run, including photo shooting along the way. Half of the trip was complete. In total, it would amount to 335km (208 miles) and over 20,000m (68000+ feet) of vertical ascent in eleven days of running. Type-two fun at its finest.

 

It wasn’t the most spectacular sunrise, even if we were in a seriously spectacular place. But good adventures often stray from the plan, especially when you bring a photographer with you, on a self-propelled, mountain running adventure through the wilds of the Caucasus. The sunset shoots were kept for the accidental days when it took until dark to reach the next warm bed. Sunrise wasn’t a theme that our Georgian hosts understood. Breakfasts wouldn’t come before 8 a.m., but they were well worth waiting for. 

 

Yesterday’s dark clouds that encircled Mt. Kazbek’s 5033m peak like hungry sharks had all but dissipated, giving an opportunity to run to her glacier and back in time to catch a Marshrutka (a Georgian minivan) to Tbilisi.

 

What were we doing out there? Good question. I asked myself the same thing multiple times during our daily runs averaging 40 kilometers. 

 

Journeys like this have become an annual occurrence for me over the last few years. I get restless and feel the urge to return to the fundamentals. "Eat. Sleep. Run. Repeat” is a good mantra. Appreciation maximizes, man-made stress minimizes, creativity sparks. I get lost in the valleys, lonely on high-mountain passes and warm in isolated villages where locals serve hot tea and welcome foreigners like old friends. 

 

The extreme physical demands placed on the body by running high altitudes and unimaginable distances in less-than-luxury conditions causes an introspective shift. 

 

It’s a way to defy one’s own limits and creates space for inner discoveryand mindful expansion. Mountain surroundings are beneficial, if not vital, for this process. Their raw majesty, their regal presence, grounds us and opens our eyes in a way that little else can.

 

 

Over a year ago, when meticulously planning this route during my lunch breaks, I had thought it was a good idea to go somewhere new. Running up and over passes exceeding altitudes of 3500m. Mostly single trails – not the flowing kind you find in the Alps, but the gnarly, rocky, often eroded and exposed trails with the occasional viper slithering off them (also not a relaxed moment for my cameraman). Not to mention the parts of trail that lead to stinging nettle “plantations”. Fun Fact – if you get too much nettle sting, you pass out, or skip a whole night of sleep. There is no maximum limit. Another fun fact – you can cook the leaves and put them on pizza, which is exactly what I’ll be doing when I get home. 

 

This adventure was a chance for discovery: of ourselves and a brand new part of the world for us–actually for trail runners. Speaking to David, my contact in the local Georgian trail running community (of which there are about ten members), this was brand new territory for runners. It was real and raw and yeah, sometimes hard. Running over multiple mountain passes carrying all our camera gear, daily food and everything we needed for a long run through the wilderness that went high. Simultaneously on the lookout, ready to pull out our poles at any moment to stave off the ferocity of 90-kilogram Georgian shepherd dogs when the case arose, which it did more than twice. David mentioned before we left the country’s capital, Tbilisi, that his friend, Beka, carries fireworks for protection. “Works a treat!” Funnily, we hadn’t thought to pack pyrotechnics…

 

Far beyond villages and roads, we could run all day seeing scarcely a trace of humanity. Bar the winding single trail that lay before us and the occasional medieval tower in the distance, crooked, ancient and lonely on the hillside. Once used to keep watch for thieves and invading empires, these towers date back to between the ninth and twelfth centuries. They look it too. Some are half standing with a pile of rubble at their base. Others have the appearance that they will succumb to gravity and topple at any moment. 

  

The Cloudventure
Our fully cushioned trail shoe with the added traction of Missiongrip™. Born in the Swiss Alps, ready for off-road missions the world over.
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This was exactly what I wanted when I envisioned running into the depths of the Caucasus. Away from the pedicured mountainsides and chiming cowbells of civilisation in the Alps. Familiarity dissolved here and each new day brought new views, laughs, friendships and challenges.

 

The adventure began in Tbilisi. Day one left the city behind with an eight-hour drive along dirt roads that snaked up steep mountainsides, to our starting point in Omalo. Come October, these villages are completely deserted until the snow on the passes melts away, when landslides on the only road in and out can be repaired – and the locals can make the trip back home. 

 

En route we passed a dozen Mitsubishi Delicas – the unofficial emblem of the Caucasian roads, defying physics as they powered up impossibly steep switchbacks. 

 

Roadside memorials dotted the way. Instead of bouquets of flowers, old photos of people lost on this infamous road lay in commemoration, together with three-liter plastic bottles of beer and vials of chacha, the local moonshine. Reminders that we were in Georgia, even when the landscapes nearly tricked us into believing we hadn’t left the Alps.

 

Now and then we’d notice a pair of hawks floating romantically in the air, the first sighting of which left my Austrian comrade (and photo-taker), Lukas, with a lighter pack. Drone connection was lost for good. Speculation ensued that the hawks removed it from their sky, only to vanish into the lush depths of valley below. Wildlife was otherwise shy. The upper Caucasus is home to bears, leopards and wolves but you wouldn’t know it.

  

  

Our driver dropped us at our destination before turning the car around in a cloud of dust. For a moment we were left just standing there, holding nothing but the small packs we would run with all the way to Kazbegi – some 160 kilometers (100 miles) away. I opened the squeaky gate and walked through the eclectic garden of our guesthouse. Lilac-colored flowers, dill and apples trees lined the pathway to a table under an umbrella. Within a few minutes, the table was filled with generous plates of watermelon, biscuits and strong Turkish coffee. All fuel for the days ahead. 

 

The first day went the quickest. Skipping over trails and marveling at the beauty of a landscape that reminded me of my home in the Swiss Alps last summer. We ticked off our goal just after midday, then spent the afternoon basking in the sun, waiting for a Delica-load of trail runners to join us. Naivety didn’t give us the memo that this would be the last time for “relaxation.”

 

 

Girevi is just a few kilometres from the border with Russia. We looked towards a small hill to the North as one of the six Georgian trail runners who joined us for day two points out, “Just over this pass is Chechnya. Cross it and you’ll be taken straight to prison.” Being a foreigner, we’d probably be released in a few days. Being Georgian, it may take a few years. That thought lingered as we sat in the afternoon light waiting the border control to check our passports and let us continue over the Atsunta pass. The watchful eye of a wolf-sized guard dog made sure no one made a sudden move.

 

Georgia and Russia are still officially at war and the scattered, crumbling fortresses make it hard to forget the region’s bloody history. However, the atmosphere on the ground is safe and peaceful. A warm welcome met us at the second homestay where the whole family spent the afternoon making khinkali (meat-filled dumplings) for our visit. There goes a saying in Georgia: “A guest is a gift from God.” I was beginning to appreciate this. 

 

We were fed ultrarunning proportions of food. Tables were laden with dishes of cooked vegetables, soups, fresh bread, home-made cheeses and a favourite: cucumber and tomato dressed in a crushed walnut sauce. There would often be so little space left that the mountain of butter would be relegated to an empty chair. 

 

The cuisine was not only rich and delicious but also momentarily cured the insatiable appetite that resulted from our daily effort. Especially hungry days called for khachapuri, a speciality of leavened bread with a dense cheese filling. On arrival in Tbilisi, I could only manage half a slice. By day ten I was eating the entire plate. 

 

Beyond the food were the drinks. There was never any water on the table, yet each night there was strong encouragement from locals to share some wine, beer and chacha, usually poured from recycled Fanta bottles. Beware. Once the shot glass is wet, it continues to refill, so with a few exceptions to fully “embrace local culture,” we didn’t dare to take a first sip. 

 

One of these exceptions was sharing supra (Georgian feast) with the trail runners who had also taken the treacherous Tusheti road to run with us. We set off for day two with a cheerful bunch of new friends and full stomachs. I had muled six pairs of the Cloudventure Peak over from Switzerland for the crew, and we put them to the test on Caucasian soil. Over rocks and across rivers, for forty kilometres in nose-bleed altitudes. At the top of Atsunta pass (3400m), David remarked in his ever-casual tone “You’ll run to those mountains tomorrow.” I gawked as I squinted into the distance at the two peaks he pointed to. I used to work as a vet in Folkestone on the south coast of England, and on a clear morning, I could just make out France, over 50 miles (80 kilometers) across the channel. That’s how away far this looked.

 

 

The days that followed were equally as incredible. Our trail team dwindled back to just the two of us. Our running dialogue repeated like this: the kilometre beep from my watch, followed by my update for Lukas on how far we’d gone. Then his answer of a cheerful “good!” He never complained, not even on that one hot day in Svaneti where I thought I might have killed him. “I am super done,” were the first and last words he spoke to me that evening. I just kept passing him more food and making him more tea, hoping he’d come back to life. It worked.

  

 

At the end of every other run, we’d sit at the dinner table deconstructing the day’s thoughts and events. Prior to the trip, we had met each other only three times. Now we were together 24/7, filled with many ‘I’m-glad-you’re-here’ moments for the both of us. Not just when that bear-sized dog effortlessly jumped over to our side of the fence in Kvemo Marghi, but on those really long days, when the laughter and quatschen (German for nonsense talk), were as important as heart and lungs in getting us to the top. 

 

Another exception to the unspoken “no chacha” pact was a memorable stay in Zemo Marghi. Directions from David, who booked for me, went like this: “Ask for Murmon once in the village.” Thankfully, of about the twelve houses that made up the village, I guess only one Murmon had a guesthouse. We found the jolly old man chopping wood in front of a rustic, two-storey home. He smiled at us, mumbling something about Russki. We told him we didn’t speak it and he chuckled as he directed us into his property and called “Saba!” 

 

A pretty herd of cows grazed on the rare kempt lawn. Beehives lined up where the grass met the forest, amidst stunning mountain scenery. A sheep dog wagged its tail as it lay beside an old bathtub next to a wooden table. The vibe was tranquil. 

 

Murmon gestured us to sit down and his nine-year-old son walked out, bringing with him a friendly smile, a basket of bread and two plates. One of cheese, the other cucumber. Ravenous, as always, we ate the whole thing.

 

When darkness fell, Murmon came out with a lightbulb and screwed it somewhere into the tree above our table, while Saba laid down butcher’s paper as a tablecloth and ripped pages from a notebook to play the role of napkins. We looked on, eager to see how this would unfold. Eyes grateful when words weren’t of real use. A rich soup was ladled out, along with plenty more bread and cheese and – you guessed it – that old plastic bottle filled with chacha. We toasted the traditional way, holding our glass and entwining our arm around our neighbour’s before downing the shot, giving a little shudder from the strength.

 

Lukas and I looked at one another, apprehension in our eyes that this could get messy, but also with humor for how our day had felt long and arduous only to conclude here, sitting around this garden table having a dinner party with the locals. We were minus a common language but possessed a surplus of connection and cheer. Our phones stayed inside. It would have felt rude to pose that hideous question, “Excuse me, is there wifi?” Instead, we played soccer in the garden and Saba showed us his hand-carved bow and arrow.  

 

Morning brought with it a clear blue sky. We started the slow-jog warm up, bidding farewell to new friends as they looped bridles around their shoulders and presumably went to collect their horses. 

 

 

Each day, we overcame challenges beyond the chacha headache. We survived chafing (not me), some five days of gastrointestinal “issues” (me) and those horse-sized dogs. My left arm peeling from sunburn, our bodies ceasing to thermoregulate. We would sit at dinner tables in puffies while others complained it was hot. Back in our local burrito bar in Innsbruck, I remember a doubt I posed to Lukas about the trip before we left. “I’m not really sure this is badass enough, Lukas.” 

 

  

When I lay awake in bed on day seven, leg muscles burning like that post ultramarathon race feeling and skin on fire from nearly being swallowed up by a field of stinging nettles earlier that day, I wondered to myself, with little confidence, if I would be able to finish what I set out to do. At this point I realised that this was a real adventure. The kind of journey that requires growth in order to achieve it. This awareness gave me excitement to go on. 

 

Opportunity for growth is something I don’t like to pass up. And when there’s running and mountains involved, even better. 

 

Everything became easier after that epiphany in Nakra. A shorter run into touristic Mestia – just 22 kilometres. Practically a “rest day” if you will, with less than 1600m of vertical ascent. There were shops to restock a dwindled chocolate bar supply.  A thunderstorm finally cooled the sultry air. Like symbolism to the challenges of our journey being behind us in the wake of more time for play. And play we did. Jumping in puddles, skipping over increasingly flowing trails and stopping to bask in the brightness of the massive glacial wall that emanated from the end of the valley, right in front of us. Damn, nature, you’re gorgeous!

    

  

The plan wasn’t for that final day of running to end up like the cherry on top of an iced cake, but like all good adventures, things often stray from the plan. We marched to the top of another jaw-dropping pass. Crossed the toe-numbing river, birthed from the glacial waterfall before us. To the north, giant screens of ice served as the backdrop, as if Russia had placed a projector here to hide a truth on the other side. It felt unreal.

 

Making the last turn around the bend and leaving the glacial views behind, feeling like children being pulled by parents out of Disneyland. Hyperactive from stoke (and the gummy bears we bought two days ago), reluctant to leave the magical setting. However, there was a ride to catch. Our driver would be waiting at 4 p.m. to return us to the colorful capital. The meeting point, Ushguli, is one of Europe’s highest continuously inhabited settlements. My feelings were divided. I didn’t want the adventure to end, yet desperately needed to throw my clothes in a washing machine… and Lukas’ stinking hat in the bin. 

  

 

Traveling in the back seat along those winding mountain roads, filled with both nausea and content, I reminisced on the power of taking such journeys into the unknown. Disconnection created connections. The struggles kept it real. Taking the dirty single track didn’t just lead to heavenly landscapes, but to a better version of myself. 

 

Should you go to Georgia?

If the captivating beauty of the Swiss Alps leaves you breathless and the drama of the Himalayas sends goosebumps up your arms (in the good way), then Georgia is definitely for you. Maybe don’t go if you’re on a diet. 

 

Should you run in Georgia?

Most definitely. Type Two Run organise a trail running week along the pick of these trails. Join in August 2020! typetworun.com

 

Getting there:

Don’t miss the eclectic and colourful capital of Tbilisi. Plane, train or grab some friends and drive your van there. 

 

The stats:

11 days of running in the Caucasus – 335km – 20430m of vertical ascent

 

Kirra’s Itinerary (Massive thanks to David Jijelava & Beka Aslanishvili for advice on the route and to Paul from Transcaucasian Trail for updated info on the Svaneti section).

   

    

The Itinerary

  

Day 1

Omalo – Girevi

33.46 km/2,084 m+

 

 

Day 2

Girevi – Shatili

40.24 km/2,455 m+

 

Day 3

Shatili – Roshka

43.48 km/2,969 m+

  

Day 4

Roshka – Kazbegi

43.64 km/1,761 m+

 

 

Day 6

Altihut – Mt. Kazbek Glacier – Kazbegi

12.86 km/392 m+

See above. We travelled basically the same route back, plus some. 

 

Day 7

Tbilisi Rest Day + Calories

   

Day 8

Kvemo Marghi – Zemo Marghi

5km/336 m+ hike & run (not included)

  

Day 9

Zemo Marghi – Nakra

32.01 km/2,228 m+

 

Day 10

Nakra – Mezeer

40.62 km/2,825 m+

 

 

Day 11

Mezeer – Mestia

22.59 km/1,538 m+

 

Day 12

Mestia – Adishi

26.13 km/1,654 m+  

  

Day 13

Adishi – Ushguli

30.01 km/1,168 m+

 

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